Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Writer's Most Important Book


I’ve had the great joy in recent years of twice teaching an intense college level course on mystery writing.  On the third day of class I gave my students the only objective test in my course, one based on The Elements of Style, the classic, very brief manual also known as Strunk & White, after its original author William Strunk Jr. (who composed it in 1918) and its 1959 reviser E.B. White (a former student of Strunk at Cornell and author of Charlotte’s Web).

Strunk & White
I don’t think there is a more important book for writers to read and re-read regularly, and not just because Time magazine a few years back named it one of the most influential books written in the English language since 1923.

 But don’t just take my word (or Time’s), listen to Stephen Colbert using it to dress down Vampire Weekend for attacking the Oxford comma in its lyrics (2:45-4:15).

Even for avant garde writers—and what college class lacks that breed—until they know the basics of clear, direct writing, they really can’t properly mess around with the forms. Grammar and word usage are the basic building blocks of all writing. They are the writer’s toolbox, and practitioners must know and not fear their tools.

The most experienced writers, too, should re-read it at least every couple of years, and keep it close at hand.  After all, we do forget things as we travel farther down this writing road, and need a tune-up every once in a while if for no other reason than to recall how we still confuse lie and lay.

And for those of you who are not—nor never intend on being—a “writer,” I have news for you: You are a writer, even if it’s only composing an email, letter, or memo to your boss.  As much as you may not want to hear it, the substance of your thoughts will in some measure be judged by your command of grammar, style, and spelling.  It’s just human nature.

So, read and re-read everything you write, especially those emails, and put your composition out there as clearly as you can…helped along I suggest by at least some familiarity with “Srunknwhite,” as its affectionately known to English teachers. Trust me, you’ll thank me.

Okay, today’s lecture is over—except for this brief excerpt from the introduction to Part V of The Elements of Style.  It is a selection I always find challenging, humbling, yet ever inspiring: 

There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.

May the Force be with you on the journey…or at least Strunk & White.


Thursday, August 29, 2019

Another flag controversy

Stanley - Thursday

For the last couple of weeks, I've felt that I must have spent the last 25 years, ostrich-like, with my head in the sand.

Twenty-five years ago, South Africa finally pulled its head from the sand and became a democracy. The country was blessed in that its first president, Nelson Mandela, was a remarkable man - a man who believed that co-operation and forgiveness were essential if the country were to progress towards his goal of having a country where everyone had a good education and the opportunity to realise their potential.

I have watched the country's fitful progress - and progress there has been. There is now a free press and an independent judiciary. Millions of people have moved from living in shanties to living in small, but well-built houses. Schools have been built for the millions of Black kids who were previously all but denied an education.

There have also been huge problems. The third president, Jacob Zuma, enabled a culture of political graft in which billions of rands ended up in personal pockets rather than being used for public improvement. There is rampant unemployment (about 30% officially, but probably closer to 40%) - to my mind the greatest of the problems. And the overall quality of education is pretty depressing - not unexpectedly to my mind - largely because educated Blacks, who may have considered teaching as a profession are snapped up at far higher salaries by the private sector.

And, as you would expect in a country with a massive divide between haves and have-nots, there is a lot of crime. And this has led to yet another problem, not just for the victims, but to a steady flow of emigrants to countries around the world, most seeking better lives for their children. There has been a massive brain-drain, which can only dampen the country's prospects.

I lurk on several Facebook groups whose members are ex-pat South Africans. I'm interested in seeing what is going on with these people who have taken the huge step of leaving the country of their birth to seek greener pastures.

In the past few weeks I have been shocked by the vitriol that I've seen on these groups - vicious, nasty, and racist. Disgusting. Shocking. What has caused this? The answer is a flag issue not unlike the Confederate-flag issue in the USA.

Recently, the Equality Court in South Africa came to the conclusion that, except in very limited circumstances, displaying the old South African flag constituted a hate crime. Just as in the States, there are people in South Africa who use the old flag as a symbol of their desire to return the country to what it had been. In making his judgement, Judge Phineas Mojapelo declared  'Displaying [the apartheid flag] is destructive of our nascent non-racial democracy… it is an affront to the spirit and values of botho / ubuntu, which has become a mark of civilized interaction in post-apartheid South Africa"

This decision seems to have released pent-up anger like which I haven't seen in such volume since South Africa became democratic. Obviously, the most visible reactions are outside South Africa, where people can still display the old flag, often with  the vilest of words. It even seems that the flag is becoming something more than a flashpoint for racist South Africans. Dylan Roof, the man who murdered nine people in a Charleston church in 2015, was seen wearing a jacket with the old South African flag on it. It has become a symbol of White supremacy in general. Well done Judge Mojapelo!

I am an optimist by nature, so I wonder whether this nastiness has been there the whole time, and I've just missed it. Have I had my head in the sand?


Post script

I always regarded the old South African flag to be one of the ugliest on the planet - the ultimate testament to committee decision-making. It was intended to show compromise and be a symbol of unity.

The South African flag in the apartheid era
In 1910, in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer war, the Cape colony, the Natal colony, and the two Boer republics came together to form the Union of South Africa. Initially, there was no official South African flag. The Union Jack was usually used, much to the disgust of the Afrikaners who had fought against Great Britain. An unofficial flag called the Red Ensign (which I don't remember ever seeing) was also used. 

Union Jack
Red Ensign
Eventually in 1928, a new South African flag was designed and accepted. However, the British insisted that the Union Jack also be flown, so for all intents and purposes, the country had two flags.

The new flag comprised the flags of the three nations that had fought in the Anglo-Boer war (the UK, the Orange Free State, and the South African Republic) on a background of the Prince's flag from the Netherlands.

The centrepiece of the old South African flag

In 1957, the compromise flag became the only national flag.

In 1994, a few weeks before the first free general elections, a (beautiful) new South African flag was flown.

The flag of the democratic South Africa

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Mid Atlantic Native

Sujata Massey

All pictures in this post are of Mt. Cuba Center, Hockessin, DE

I came to the Mid-Atlantic at age 18,  so I cannot claim to be a Mid-Atlantic native. I didn't marry a local man, either--I married someone from the Deep South. Yet I'd like to think Tony and I have thoroughly embraced this area for raising our family, building friendships, working hard, and planting our dream garden.

Light-snow winters followed by sunny warmth from April to September make vibrant spring, summer and fall gardens. It's easy for strong plants that survived here for millennia to spread and thrive in home gardens without the watering can or sprinkler. Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania abound with a diverse range of flora. If planted in supportive layers, these trees, shrubs, flowers and vines shelter each other and feed helpful insects and animals.

A few beneficial plants, like swamp milkweed, are the only food that newly hatched monarch caterpillars can eat before they turn into gorgeous winged beauties. (Milkweed grows in different varieties in other parts of the country, too).

A few years ago, I had the grass removed from the small double gardens in front of my Baltimore house. I planted the soil with an assortment of Mid-Atlantic natives. My novice's theory was that if most of the native plants I picked were of varieties taller than two feet, it would mimic the feeling of the English cottage gardens I love, but would be totally native.

OK, what happened?
It worked too well.

I now have tall, sprawling forests of mountain mint, rudbeckia, coneflowers, bleeding heart and liatris on either side of my front walk. I'd heard the rhyme about a garden sleeping, creeping and leaping as the first three years pass. In year four, this garden is booming with some seven-foot flowers that need to be re-homed!

My garden is healthy, but it's not glamorous. When I look at garden magazines, I sometimes envy the aesthetic glory that comes with choosing plants for beauty, rather than whether they help insects and animals.

But I believe in natives with all my heart, and I believe that natives can be used decoratively in many different ways. I need to see it to believe it--so I went to visit the Mid-Atlantic Native paradise called Mt. Cuba Center.

Mt. Cuba Center is an old mansion surrounded by more than a thousand acres of undeveloped countryside in Hockessin, Delaware. The place began in 1935 as a 126-acre wedding gift from the du Pont family to the newlyweds, Lammot du Pont Copeland and Pamela Cunningham Copeland. At the time, Pamela appeared the perfect country lady; nobody knew she would emerge as one of the most forward-thinking horticulturists in America.

The Copelands' handsome brick colonial revival house started out with proper, pretty plantings of perennials of all types bordering the brick paths. But as years passed, Pamela became more interested in the native plants of the area. In the late 1950s, she hired landscape architect Seth Kelsey to revise the gardens to be natural--highlighting plants of lower Appalachia in a beautiful way, and tucking man-made ponds at the end of forest paths, and so on. I find it refreshing that the Copelands became serious gardeners more than twenty years after getting married--a similarity Tony and I share with them.

Lammot DuPont Copeland passed away in 1983, Pamela Copeland wisely established the Mt. Cuba Foundation before her death in 2001. Since that time, the foundation has added adjacent packages of land and expanded naturalistic design education. Some of the most useful features are trial plantings of popular native plants to help the public figure out how to incorporate the most successful cultivated natives in their own homes. The public can walk along on small guided tours by volunteers who clearly practice what they preach.

Mt. Cuba has greatly expanded its boundaries. Last year, the Red Clay Reservation and Mt. Cuba merged, so there is now a grand sweep of protected land to serve as a haven for endangered plants and wildlife. In all, it's almost 1100 acres. I can only imagine how thrilled Pamela Copeland would be to see this.

Lucky for me, Mt. Cuba is less than two hours drive from my house. It seems that in the Mid-Atlantic, you can get almost anywhere--from beach to mountains to city--in about an hour or two.

On a lovely day in late July, I drove out to Mt. Cuba with Tony, our picnic basket, two straw hats, and bug spray. Temps were in the 90s, but because of the shady tall trees, it felt more like the 80s. And we didn't need our insect repellent--maybe because there were so many beneficial insects devouring mosquitoes?

I had been here once before, in late spring, so the ephemerals were not showing their small sweet faces, but bolder colors were on stage. Along the great stands of milkweed, the monarch butterflies drank pollen and debated where they would lay their eggs.

How red the native azalea was! How delicate, the pale green ferns. Dragonflies zoomed over the ponds, and tiny frogs swam with elegance.

As I sat at an antique lawn furniture eating a cucumber sandwich and drinking a cup of tea, I contemplated the gardens' rolling, green hills, utterly devoid of street lamps, roads, and cars.

I realized that Mt. Cuba is more than a native plant sanctuary. It's a living embodiment of "This Land is Your Land"--the heritage we can't risk losing.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Liberation That Almost Wasn’t

From Annamaria Alfieri:
It is my enormous honor to present today's post.  James R. Benn, a past contributor here on MIE, is one of my favorite mystery writers.  He makes writing historical fiction look effortless.  Zoe Sharp - who gave up her spot today to Jim - and all the rest of us on MIE know how hard one has to work to make writing fiction look easy.  Jim's writing is like Fred Astaire dancing.  The work is there, but it doesn't show.  For us readers, this means that all we have to do is open the book and let our eyes scan the pages.  The story flows into our minds without a hitch.

Today Jim takes us back exactly seventy-five years to the day to Paris...

Sunday, August 25, 2019 is the 75thanniversary of the Liberation of Paris during the Second World War.

            It almost didn’t happen.
            And it certainly wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did.
            In early August of 1944, Allied forces had finally broken out of the Normandy countryside where the Germans had put up a constant, skilled, and stiff defensive fight. Allied casualties since D-Day had totaled nearly 225,000, with more than 50,000 of those killed in action. The battles following the invasion had been bloodier and slower than anticipated. 
            But when the breakout finally came, the German front disintegrated. General George Patton’s Third Army was unleashed. They made a massive end run around Nazi troops and trapped large numbers near the town of Falaise. During the battle of the Falaise Pocket, approximately 10,000 Germans were killed and 50,000 captured. As their front collapsed, German troops began to withdraw from across Normandy, making for the safety of the River Seine and Paris. 
            Constant air attacks and a lack of fuel turned the German retreat into a chaotic rout. As an example, one German armored division that had started the Normandy campaign with 20,000 men and 150 tanks made it out of the Falaise Pocket with only 300 men and 10 tanks. 
            Much of the Allied success in this battle was due to the valiant stand of the Polish 1st Armoured Division, who took a hill overlooking the road from Falaise and fought off repeated attacks by the Germans attempting to escape. The map below shows the crucial position of the Poles (marked by their white and red flag). Note also the French flag (blue, white, red) to the lower right. That’s the Free French 2nd Armored Division, and we’ll get back to them in a bit.

So what next? With disorganized German forces making for Paris and beyond, what was the Allied strategy? As General Dwight David Eisenhower saw it, his job was to defeat Germany, and that meant defeating the German Army in the field. His plan was not to take Paris, but to actively pursue and destroy the Germans before they could get to the relative safety of the Siegfried Line at their own border. Eisenhower also knew that the population of Paris needed food. Estimates ran to 3,600 tons per day, all of which would have to be trucked into the city, using resources that were needed for the war effort. Not something he was prepared to do.
As can be plainly seen in this situation map, which is current up to August 20, 1944, no one was going to Paris. Patton’s Third Army was to cross the Seine north and south of Paris, but no one was given the objective of taking the city. 

            Then, all hell broke loose. The Paris police and postal workers went on strike, assuming a rapid Allied advance on the city was part of the Allied plan. The police barricaded themselves in their headquarters and raised the French flag in clear defiance of German rule. Sensing that the population was behind the police and ready for action, the leader of the French Forces of the Interior in the Paris area, Henri Rol-Tanguy (known by his nom de guerre Colonel Rol), declared it was time for a general uprising. Posters went up across the city calling on French citizens to take up arms against the occupier.

            Barricades sprung up in most neighborhoods, although they were noticeably absent in the Champs Elysées, the wealthy 8th Arrondissement.

            Now Eisenhower had a problem. The Parisians, having little in the way of arms or supplies, were expecting the Allies to come to their rescue. But this fellow, General Charles de Gaulle, had an even bigger problem. 

            Colonel Rol was a Communist. He was a leader of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP), one of the largest and best-organized Resistance groups. Charles de Gaulle had plans to declare himself president of the new French Republic and realized that might be difficult if the Communist led uprising was successful. De Gaulle had no intention of entering Paris only to be greeted by its liberator. He would liberate the city, no one else.
Neither Eisenhower nor de Gaulle had been in favor of a Parisian rebellion, each for his own reason. But once it got underway, it quickly became apparent to both men that something had to be done.
            Charles de Gaulle took the first decisive step. He declared that if Eisenhower did not act, he would withdraw the Free French 2nd Armored Division (equipped and supplied by the Americans) from the front line and send it on to Paris. This would have been a disaster for the Allies, and Ike knew it. So he gave the order for the Free French along with the US 4th Infantry Division to advance upon the city. 
            The map below, current up to August 25, 1944, shows the new dispositions, with powerful forces aimed directly at the City of Lights.

            When regular Allied forces entered the city, the Germans capitulated quickly. As occupiers, they were understandably loath to surrender to irregular Resistance forces, especially those dominated by the Communists. But once a regular French officer fought his way to the commandant’s headquarters at the Hotel Meurice, the surrender was ordered.
The fight for Paris entailed significant losses. About 1,600 Resistance fighters died, and 130 members of the 2nd French Armored Division lost their lives in the assault on Paris. American units took casualties as well.
            General de Gaulle had his entrance into Paris and a grand parade. Colonel Rol was thanked for his service and shunted aside. 

            The first night of Liberation was pure madness. Church bells rang, wine flowed, and kisses were bestowed. In numerous accounts, eyewitnesses said it was the most joyous event they had ever witnessed.

Vive la France!

Saturday, August 24, 2019

A Carl Sandburg-like Take on Mykonos


We just spent a grand month hidden away at my farm in the undiscovered paradise of Northwest New Jersey.

But now it’s time to return home to the anything but undiscovered paradise of Mykonos. It’s been an interesting summer for Mykonos, brought on by what I’d call a yin and yang relationship with a tourist press obsessed by the draw of its 24/7 lifestyle, and celebrities anxious to bask in the island’s notoriety. 

In the month that I’ve been away (no connection intended) the tourist press has not been particularly kind to the island, slamming it ways I’d characterize as part deserved, part jealousy, part schadenfreude, and part just plain piling on. 

I wanted to write something directly addressing that coverage, but decided what’s the use of barking at the press. Those who live by the press, die by the press. I’m just an observer, and so I have two observations to offer on Mykonos. The first is a documentary titled, “Mykonos: the other side,” as seen through the lens of two wonderfully talented filmmakers, Vasileios Billy Cotsis and Basil Genimahaliotis (yes, I appear in it).

The second is my bald-faced rip off parody of Carl Sandburg’s classic poem, Chicago.

One takes forty minutes, the other forty seconds.  Each though, in its own way, is intended to tell it like it is, as we all head merrily from summer into the fall.

So, here we go…sorry Mr. Sandburg.


Hot Beaches for the World,
   Fool Maker, Stalker of Teat,
   Playground for Titans and the Nation's Great Earner;
   Balmy, lusty, thralling,
   Island of Big Boulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your late night genders
   offer the passions luring the willing.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the tax evader
   go free to shill again.
And they tell me you are tempting and my reply is: On the faces of those who come to
    play I have seen the marks of wanton wonder.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at my island, and I give
   them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another place with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and loved
   and winning.
Flinging aside all your curses to toil in tending each visitor, here is a bright white island
   set vivid against ever blue niceties:
Proud of its role in providing distraction, to a world much in need of escape from true
   Partying, eating, sleeping,
Under the stars, remembering from youth, hard times filled with grief,
Under the terrible scars of destiny’s past poverty and haughty laughs,
Laughs now tossed about by ignorant strangers who’ve not suffered but love to prattle,
Bragging and laughing that in their wallets lay the pulse, and within big tips the heart of
   the people,
But who cares, for the balmy, lusty, thralling mood, that draws Youth full-throated and
   smiling to their island, has made them rich and proud to be Hot Beaches, Fool Maker, Stalker of Teat, Playground for Titans and Grand Earner to the Nation.


And for those of you who prefer the original version, here’s...


Hog Butcher for the World,
   Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
   Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
   Stormy, husky, brawling,
   City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women
   under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill
   and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I
   have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give
   them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse
   and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set
   vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the
   Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to
   be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight
   Handler to the Nation.


Friday, August 23, 2019


Eastbourne sits on the south coast of England, terribly British, terribly Victorian and famous for a mild climate that means it is retirement heaven for the golden oldies of the south east of England.

I have, and it seems I am not alone, a sneaking regard for these old towns with their shabby  Victoriana and sense of theatre. It's as if nothing is really real. It's all a bit sinister.

There's an old amphitheatre, open air on the beach.

This was the promenade very early. Gangs of mobility Scootered oldies hunt in packs.
They hunt for ice cream and toilets.

Old beach huts and the war defence station on the hill.

Groynes,  the tide move empty the beach of shale very quickly.

The old Pier, always fascinating.

Look at the comfy seats at the amphitheatre.

From this angle, the beach looks like a militarised zone.

My arty pic, under the pier.

Somebody re imagining The Cinderella Killer by Simon Brett.

                                                              Flowers on the promenade.

residents are encouraged to walk for health, we did 7 miles fuelled by ice cream

The pier

The long beach

Only fascinated by their phones. How much do they miss?

I envied this guy.

The posh old Victorian hotels, very Agatha Christie.

Out to the Birling Gap.

Experimenting with modern beach huts.

Idea number two

A quiet moment in the peace garden

Lovely weather vane

This was a piece of art. Honestly.

Youngsters enjoying the weather, set fare.

                                                                  Proper beach huts!

                                                  The man had chips, the dog had a appetite.

                                                  Keeping a look out over the channel

                                               And of course, modern developments moving in.

I saw this and thought of Stan's swimming pool.

Why the defences were there!

Caro Ramsay, Eastbourne, 23rd August 2019,