Sunday, July 31, 2016

What century is this anyway? A bit of a rant against misogyny

As I mentioned in my last blog, I’m currently partway through renovating a new house. (The house being new to me, rather than a house that is actually new.)

Now, I consider myself a fairly practical kind of person across quite a wide range of subjects. Not an expert, but … capable. Comes from being a bit of an autodidact, I think. If I happen across something I find interesting, or useful, I go about acquiring knowledge on it. And the more that information is widely and freely available, the easier it is to obtain.

Sometimes, however, information is nothing without hands-on application. So, it’s not enough for me simply to watch a How-To clip on YouTube, I want to get out there and also acquire the real-world skill.

Having helped complete a self-build project with my ex a few years ago, I had no qualms about taking on a property I knew needed Work.

Indeed, I bought the house fully intending to do quite a bit of what was needed myself, including expanding the shower room into a bath-and-shower room, chopping the staircase about, and moving the kitchen from its existing location into the open-plan living area to provide another bedroom/study. As well, of course, as moving most of the lighting and power outlets around. Why is it they’re never in the right place?

Like I said, I’m fairly practical, and it’s nothing I haven’t done before.

But then I managed to crack a rib. On reflection, I believe I may have crumpled a couple this time, and in rather awkward places. Yes, I’ve reached the hurts-to-cough/laugh/sneeze/breath-deeply stage, and when I went to the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival last weekend I had to warn friends I hadn’t seen for ages not to hug me too hard!

With Jeff Deaver in the bar at the Old Swan, Harrogate. Photo: Ali Karim
So, I admit to a bit of a downer earlier in the week, as the realisation sank in that there really are some jobs I know I ought to be able to do, but the truth is at the moment physically I just can’t. Heaving large pieces of solid-wood kitchen worktop about, for instance, is simply not a good idea unless I want to prolong my recovery time.

Finally, I took the sensible course and decided to draft in some expert help instead. Enter various tradesmen to quote for the bits I’m intending to farm out. I spoke with them on the phone beforehand, explaining that I was unable to finish what I’d started because of the creaky bone situation. And yet all four of the ones who’ve called round over the past week have walked into the house and, almost as an opening gambit, said with an incredulous air, “Have you really done all this yourself?”

Charlie Fox would have kicked their arses into the middle of next week.

Aware that I did actually want to extract a reasonable quotation from them, rather than entrails, I refrained from a similar course of action. I produced a slightly baffled look, as if the question was a rarity rather than the dull norm, and agreed that ye-es, indeed I had.

I did not maim any of them.

(Not even a little bit …

… however tempted I might have been.)

Nor did any of them leave minus quantities of blood or teeth.

(Heroic, isn’t it, what self-restraint I have?)

Now, most of the jobs I’ve done are not exactly brain surgery. They require a bit of logical thought and practical application. Occasionally, there is a certain amount of brute force and dead ignorance involved, but the former qualities often take precedence over the latter. As Archimedes pointed out: “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”

Or something like that.

So why the astonishment? And, it has to be said, the tiniest hint of scepticism?

Sometimes, I struggle to remember we are more than halfway through the second decade of the twenty-first century. We have our second woman Prime Minister in Theresa May.

America has a female serious contender for the White House.

And then there’s Naomi Climber.

Never heard of her? Well, in October 2015 she became the first female president of the UK’s Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET). Traditionally male preserves are becoming more open to gender equality all the time.

But not DIY or house construction. I seem to recall that during the self-build, visitors assumed my ex was the one doing the technical stuff, and I was making him cups of tea between choosing paint colours and sweeping up. Still, it could have been worse ...

I could have been the one on the ladder.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am as against positive discrimination as I am against negative discrimination. I believe firmly in people achieving appointment by being truly the best person for the job, not because they fulfil a gender quota. Interestingly, when blind auditions were introduced for orchestras, the chances of a female applicant obtaining a position rose by 50%.

I never would have imagined that classical music would be a field where misogyny was rife, just as I would never have imagined before I began writing crime thrillers that there would be any kind of objection by male readers to women writing in that genre.

Or amazement on the faces of tradesmen that I know how to hold a screwdriver.

(Thrust sharply upwards just under the left side of the diaphragm. Or straight through the neck from one side to the other.)

Ah, not quite what you had in mind, huh …?

What about you, folks? What bias of any kind have you encountered in the workplace, and what reasons were given for perpetuating it?

This week’s Word of the Week is eucatastrophe, meaning the sudden resolution of events in a story to provide a happy ending. It is said to have been coined by JRR Tolkien, who added the Greek eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, to signify a reversal of fortune which ensures the protagonist does not meet the apparently inevitable sticky end. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

When You Put Characters in Charge...


Two weeks ago I plunged full force into writing my new book.  I let it go in whatever direction the characters wanted to take it. Obviously I’m a pantser rather than a plotter…and I’m a little late this year in putting on my shorts.

Living as I do in Greece, there are a lot of potential topics to touch upon, but the refugee situation seems to strike my fictional friends as hard to ignore, even though most of the real world—as represented by its media—seems to have successfully done that.

Here’s a bit I let my characters write a little over two weeks ago—but please be kind to them, for after all, it’s a first draft:

These days there wasn’t much refugee trafficking business to lose, but his boss saw it as a cyclical business.

Sooner or later there’d be a falling out between the EU and Turkey, or Turkey would find a reason for ratcheting up the pressure on Greece; either scenario inevitably triggering a resumed flood of refugees.  That’s when money would again flow into his pockets, but only if the [victim’s] plans never came to pass. 

He hoped his boss was right, because he’d gotten used to the money.  But his boss had been wrong before.  He’d predicted the flow would resume after the EU cut its agreed upon daily per refugee payment to Turkey in half, but nothing happened.  His boss attributed that to Turkey not wanting to stir up a quarrel with the EU while in negotiations to join it as a member state.  “Be patient,” he’d said.

Full stop. 

They’re developing characters here, so please don’t judge this as an expression of political leanings on the part of their shepherd.

However on July 15th, a day after those words appeared on my laptop, a failed coup attempt took place in Turkey, and Greece’s insistence on following international law rather than giving in to Turkey’s demand for the immediate return of Turkish military personnel seeking asylum in Greece, seriously irked Turkish President Erdogan.

Coincidently, also on July 14th, the Financial Times wrote,

Migrant arrivals in Greece have fallen since the [March 2016] EU-Turkey deal, which called for mass returns of migrants in return for visa-free travel for Turks in the EU’s Schengen zone, provided that Ankara reformed its terrorism laws to meet the bloc’s conditions.

As recently reported in the Greek newspaper Iefimerida, within a week following the attempted coup, the flow of refugees from Turkey into Greece’s northern Aegean islands of Lesbos and Chios (which bore the brunt of the pre-agreement flood of refugees) had become “particularly intense.”  Nowhere near the volume of the year before, but sufficient to remind governments how easily Turkey could once again plunge the EU and Greece back into that political nightmare of human suffering. 

But rather than openly rattling that saber, President Erdogan couched his nation’s threat of potentially abandoning its refugee agreement upon the EU purportedly failing to live up to its financial obligations under the agreement, a charge the EU denies.

Today 57,000 refugee/migrants are said to sit in camps in Greece and another 250,000 in 26 camps in Turkey.  Estimates of how many undocumented refugees are elsewhere in those countries vary greatly, but of the more than 4.8 million Syrian refugees thus far registered as fleeing Syria (with 6.6 million additional listed as “displaced” within Syria), 2.7 million are registered as arrivals in Turkey—of which many undoubtedly were included within the one million who entered Greece in 2015.

With no end in sight to the conflict in Syria, and tens of millions of refugees in play in the region, this is not a crisis that will just go away, despite the EU’s fervent wish that it would—facing as it does Brexit, rising nationalistic anti-immigrant sentiment, a Turkish government obsessed with consolidating power in the aftermath of a failed coup, Turkey’s warming relations with Putin’s Russia…and yesterday’s bombshell from the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office that incensed its board of executive directors "at the way European Union insiders used the fund to rescue their own rich currency union and banking system." [Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, The Telegraph].

In case you missed it, as reported by The Telegraph, “The International Monetary Fund’s top staff misled its own board, made a series of calamitous misjudgments in Greece [immolating the country in the process], became euphoric cheerleaders for the euro project, ignored warning signs of impending crisis, and collectively failed to grasp an elemental concept of currency theory. ”

Head of the IMF

Oh yes, and then there’s the US Presidential election drawing the world’s dominant power in who knows what direction.

My God, what have I done trusting my characters to write this story!

Perhaps I should write a cozy.


Friday, July 29, 2016

Millie Gray

As you know, at the recent marketing lab I met one of those (few) people I call truly inspirational. So I was glad to nab her and ask her for a few words about her writing life for the here's introducing ( drum roll.......) Millie Gray.

I then looked up her biog on the book trust website. I think it shows what a powerhouse she is...


Millie Gray is a writer and professional storyteller who has the honour of being ’Arts Champion for Older People in Scotland.’ Her humorous plays attract audiences from all over Scotland and she is much in demand to do workshops and talks about her work as a writer and storyteller. Her love of Scottish culture and language shine through all of her work. Recently her work, inspiring people with mental health problems to engage with the arts, earned her a prestigious award in West Lothian. Millie who was born in Leith is a ‘people watcher’ who has a flair for recounting family tales in a humorous way. She is witty and has sharp insight.


"At the age of seventy five I decided that if I was going to follow my lifelong dream and write. I could not, as my starring role at Leith Crematorium was getting ever closer, put it off any longer.
Besides the fiend whose day role was to be a teacher, a teacher who thought that as I was an impoverished and deprived child from a questionable housing estate, she had the right to say to me as she cackled, 'No, no dear, people from your background, do not write for living. They work in factories and clean their betters houses.,' Anyway the old witch had just fulfilled my sixty year old wish for her and had keeled over - and before you ask, no I did not go to her funeral.

A typical single end. ( not very good for Hide and Seek!!)

My first book was taken immediately by my publishers, Black & White, and I have just finished book number eight and have a storyline in my head for book nine. Nobody is more surprised than I am that my books, which are social histories set in family sagas have been as popular as they have.

I just couldn't believe that forty five thousand people borrowed a Millie Gray book from the libraries last year. This is a feat because when I was growing up most people borrowed books from their libraries but now we can afford to buy a book or have Kindle downloads.
My books are mainly read by women who like myself have met adversity in life. I always have strong women as my central characters. They have managed by the end of the tale to survive and go on.

Auld Reekie... pre festival

The setting for the books up until the last one, 'Moving On,' are set in Leith. Leith is the strong industrial port of the majestic Edinburgh the capital of Scotland. Although Leith is on the east coast of Scotland it has more in common with Glasgow especially when it comes to humour and the ability to laugh at ourselves.

Like many places Leith has now a trendy waterfront with expensive restaurants

On reflection I think that my being able to tell a story is due to my being, what is called a Professional Storyteller, but look up storyteller the dictionary and you will see that the definition is liar.
For the future I would love to write a true life crime story. But as yet we have not found out what did happen to our cousin, Mavis, who disappeared eight years ago. Indeed which one of the many Walter Mitty lives she led was her true self? That might have to wait until book number ten.

So success came to me in later life – so what? I am proud of what I have achieved. I look at where we were. Granny lived in a single end and shared a 'lavvy' with forty other poor deprived souls, and today in our family we have a member of all the 'Group A' professions and my grandson has just moved into a detached four bedroomed house in leafy Haddington and of course it had to have the now mandatory two bathrooms because there are four of them living in that house. Mind you he does acknowledge that he had a wee helping hand from Granny who writes about her childhood when her top aspiration was to have an Izal Toilet Roll. Finally I never write directly about my siblings because they have all got on in life and would be so wrong for me to embarrass them."

                                                     I thought I'd put this at the bottom. Of the blog.

Millie Grey guest blogging for Caro 29 07 2016

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Harrogate 2016: beautiful location; tough questions

Stanley - Thursday

Michael and I were honoured to participate last week in a panel called MURDER OUT OF AFRICA at the remarkable Theakston Old Peculier Writing Festival in Harrogate in the UK.

Photo - Steph Broadribb

Harrogate is an elegant spa town, which was once the favoured destination by the European well-to-do.  Left over from that era are extravagant hotels, beautiful buildings, open spaces, and the gorgeous Valley Gardens, in addition to the baths themselves, some of which are still open.  There’s a lovely restored Edwardian concert hall, the Royal Pump Room Museum, and shops and tearooms galore.

We stayed at the festival venue - The Old Swan Hotel

Cenotaph and Yorkshire Hotel (Photo-DS Pugh)
Harrogate Theatre (Photo-Celia Perry)
Town Hall (Photo-Colin Smith)
Majestic Hotel (Photo-DS Pugh)
Royal Pump Room (Photo-John Tomlinson)
Betty's Tearoom
In some ways, more impressive is the way the town has grasped the opportunity to become a modern-day tourist destination.  Building on its physical beauty, the town has developed a thriving festival industry ranging from our crime writers festival to musical concerts throughout the year; from small animal shows to Gilbert and Sullivan extravaganzas; from theatre to youth festivals; from flower shows to gatherings of MG owners.

There are also many opportunities to explore the countryside’s castles, cathedrals, abbeys, and museums, as well as to walk or bike through Yorkshire's countryside.

I have to say that I was gobsmacked (that’s the appropriate English expression, I believe) by the town and what it’s doing.

The Theakston Old Peculier Writing Festival was also mightily impressive.  It is so named because a local brewery, Theakston’s, is a major sponsor and, needless to say, those attending the festival thanked it many times. 

As a writers festival it differs from any other that I’ve been to.  First, there is only one panel at a time, which provides authors with a large audience (over 14,000 tickets were sold for the two-and-a-half-day event).  I estimate the Murder out of Africa panel had about 300-350 people in the audience.  

Second, there are relatively few authors – about 80 – which means readers have plenty of time to chat to them over a Theakstons or two.  And third, there is a huge area outside the Old Swan Hotel for everyone to mingle.

It is a delightful event to which I hope to return.

Our new UK editions from Orenda Books
Our panel turned out to be very special.  The panelists were Leye Adenle from Nigeria, Paul Mendelson from the UK whose books are set in Cape Town, Deon Meyer from South Africa, and ourselves.  We had a superb moderator in the person of NJ Cooper.

Two things stand out in my mind from the panel – moments where panelists pushed back against some tough comments and questions.

I don’t remember exactly how the topic surfaced, but the idea that Africans are misogynistic was raised.  Leye’s reacted strongly and retorted that historically many Nigerian and other African groups have and have had women as leaders, that women have traditionally been the backbone of most communities.  Then both he and Paul commented that Christianity, with its a-woman-should-obey-the-man preaching and its pushy preachers, had undermined a lot of traditional beliefs, resulting in a growth in misogyny to the detriment of the continent. 

leye Adenle

Paul Mendelson
I had not thought about this aspect of the European presence in Africa, but I can see what a revolution it caused.  It is easy to see how male European priests would naturally try to deal with local men, thinking they were in charge.  It is also not surprising that this started to shift local values and traditions with respect to gender roles.  In my observation, women are still often the foundation of black society with men believing the should be in charge.

Then a member of the audience appropriately asked why from a continent that was predominately black was there only one black face on the panel.  It was a issue Michael and I had talked about before the festival too.

Deon responded that there were few black crime authors published in the UK (and fewer in the US, I would think).  Publishers are responsible for pitching their authors to be invited to Harrogate, he said.  To have black African authors in their stable whom they can propose for Harrogate, publishers would have to see a potential demand from readers.  He then pointed at the people in the audience, telling them that they shared some of the responsibility for the make up of the panel.  If readers read only British and American writers, he asked, how can African writers ever make their mark?  He admonished the audience to get out of their comfort zones, to take a chance and read writers from Africa and elsewhere.  “You’ll find they are every bit as gripping and entertaining as the authors you are used to.”

Deon Meyer
This exchange caught me by surprise because I have always read books written by authors from all over the world.  I've always enjoyed new settings to which my mind can travel.  To learn that so many readers read only what they know was a bit of a shock.  I suspect readers of this blog are like me - reading widely and enjoying foreign locales.

This discussion also rang true in a slightly different was, as we have often been told that American readers don’t have an appetite for books from Africa.  We always thought this was wrapped up in the fact that America, unlike Europe, has had little contact with Africa except through the import and use of slaves.

It is interesting how race weaves itself into so many contexts around writers from Africa.  I can’t count the times we’ve been asked “How can two white men write a black protagonist?” or “How can two white men know how a black man thinks?”  And so on.  

When I first went to Paris to meet our French editor and our French agent, I was very excited about the prospect of being published in France.  Some of my enthusiasm was dampened, however, when I met them for lunch, because they both expressed disappointment that I wasn’t black.  Although this was done with a smile on their faces, I have no doubt a black face would have been easier to market than my lily white one.  Sigh.  I did offer to work on the situation, but . . .

Anyway, if you have a weekend free at the end of July sometime in the future, I highly recommend going to Harrogate for the Theakston Old Peculier Writing Festival.  Not only will you enjoy meeting and talking a wonderful array of very relaxed authors, but you’ll also enjoy a beautiful town and surroundings.

Valley Gardens

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Stamped by Faith

Sujata Massey

While looking through our motley collection of stamps to find a small one  to add to an envelope, I stumbled across a surprise: a modest, black and white stamp honoring "Religious Freedom in America."

I've seen stamps honoring different religious holidays, but never one for religious freedom. The stamp was issued 1957. The McCarthy years of political prosecutions were waning, but it was still an era that non-Christians were being turned away from universities and neighborhoods. Religious and political minorities did not have full rights.

The stamp’s fine print mentions the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, wherein citizens of that part of “New Netherlands” (later to become New York) petitioned their Dutch colonial government on religious tolerance. 

Stamps are both postage and government propaganda. I find it intriguing that the US Postal Service chose to promote a little-known event that predates the Revolutionary War. Yet it seems a precursor to the U.S. Constitution’s First amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

It felt shocking to encounter this stamp after flying into Baltimore-Washington International airport this past Sunday. The airport’s many televisions broadcast a CNN feature about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump announcing a proposed expansion of his desire to ban Muslims from the United States. I noticed a young woman in a long dress wearing a small black voile headscarf standing near the TV. She was busy on her cell phone. I was worried that she would look up and see the latest distressing announcement.

Donald Trump now seeks to ban visitors and immigrants coming from any country compromised by terrorism.

Trump supporter Laura Ingraham finished her convention speech with this gesture

Adolf Hitler originated the Sieg Heil salute that became mandatory for civilians 

 My thoughts rolled to 1933. Germany’s president, Paul von Hindenburg, tried to appease the country’s Nazi party by appointing Adolf Hitler as chancellor. Chancellor Hitler played on people’s fears, spewing racism and anti-Semitism. He targeted a country where too many working class people had lost out economically and were looking for a champion.

I got to thinking about how people in the country reacted to Hitler's appointment. Apparently, two-thirds of the country’s Jews stayed. I imagined them thinking then, just as we are doing now: shouldn’t we go about one’s daily life honorably and expect the country to come to its senses within the year? After all, Jewish families had resided in Germany for centuries. Many of them had good businesses and professional positions and many Christian customers, neighbors, friends. They felt they were German, and they were invested in remaining.

The Italian Jewish chemist, Primo Levi, survived Auschwitz. After the war, he wrote about the psychology of Jewish citizens wanting to stay in The Drowned and the Saved. “This village or town or region or nation is mine. I was born here, my ancestors are buried here. I speak its language, have adopted its customs and culture, and to this culture I may even have contributed. I paid its taxes, observed its laws. I fought its battles not caring whether they were just or unjust. I risked by life for its borders, some of my friends or relations lie in the war cenemtaries. I do not want nor can I leave it…”
The normal life of middle-class Jewish people in 1920s Berlin

During the Hitler years, Jewish people with enough funds, connections and luck managed to get to countries not reached by Hitler’s army. Ironically, the Jews learned England and the United States were loath to welcome them. The Anglophone nations feared that amongst the refugees, Nazi agents would be hidden; and that if they allowed more than a handful of war refugees to enter, they would be unable to hold back the masses.

Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, one of the few nations offering wide support

We have seen these attitudes replaying again as Donald Trump scapegoats Muslims. In Britain, more citizens voted to leave the European Union than to stay.

How can people think so little about the humanity of others, and fall prey to fear-mongers?

And will the rest of us be brave enough to stand up before it's too late?