Monday, November 28, 2022

The Harlem Hellfighters

 Annamaria on Monday

My work in progress these days is the fifth in my Africa series, set in 1915 against the background of WWI.  You might think you that my topic today is something that I discovered by accident while researching that awful conflict. But no! I learned about the Harlem Hellfighters during a casual casual conversation with a vendor in the Union Square farm market.  We were talking about music. I'll get around to the music in a minute.  First, who were the Harlem Hellfighters?

The regiment of today's topic was formed in New York State, comprised of black volunteers who wanted to join up and fight for their country despite the despicable way a lot of their countrymen treated them. They, largely mistakenly, believed that if they showed their valor and patriotism, they might earn the respect that they merited.

Valorous they were!! The 396th Infantry was organized in June of 1916 in New York and went through combat training in October 1917 at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, SC--not exactly a welcoming locale.  But, according to the men of the regiment, the nasty Jim Crow treatment they received in South Carolina forged a bond among them that stood them in good stead when they faced combat.

And face it, they did.  They shipped out from New York for France on December 27, 1917.  At first they were relegated to only lowliest tasks, but in April of 1918, the US Army decided to assign the unit, which wanted to serve in combat, to the French Army. The French welcomed them as comrades in arms and assigned them the French 185th Infantry Brigade.  They were issued French weapons and gear to go with their American uniforms, and a month later, they went into the trenches as part of the French 19th Division.  

They proceeded to distinguish themselves in battle after battle.  At one point they were under fire for over six months, the longest deployment for any unit during that war.  Six days after the armistice, they were the first Allied unit to reach the banks of the Rhine.

One of the most decorated was Pvt. Henry Johnson, who had been a railway station luggage porter in Albany, New York.  Along with Pvt. Needham Roberts, he fought off 24 Germans, who were attacking their observation post.  Roberts was badly wounded early on.  Johnson, after spending all of his ammunition, fought back with grenades, with the butt of his rifle, and finally with a knife. He was able to turn the Germans away.  He himself sustained 21 injuries.  He became the first American to be awarded the Croix de Guerre!

It took until the Obama administration for his heroism to be properly recognized by this own country.

Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson
 of the New York National Guard accepting the Medal of Honor
on behalf Herman Johnson, who died in 2004 

Now, about that music: the Hellfighters Marching Band.  The fabulous musicians, recruited from jazz and ragtime musicians in NYC, were lead by James Reese Europe, a composer and prominent musician in Harlem before the war. The band went to France with the soldiers and while there were the first to introduced jazz to the French and other Europeans. They were a sensation in Paris and remained one in the United States after the war. I heard about them in that conversation at the market. I came home, found a sample on YouTube, and went straight ahead and bought all of their available recordings at the iTunes store.  They are perfect! I wish I could give you a better-mastered recordings, so impressed was I of how elegantly they played. Here is a scratchy example, the best I can share on Blogger.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Reasons To Be Thankful

 The Thankful and Doubly Thankful Villages

Zoë Sharp


November traditionally sees the annual Remembrance Day here in the UK, when we remember the fallen – particularly in the two World Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. Despite the fact that World War II saw more than three times the casualties of the conflict that preceded it, we still mark this occasion on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at eleven in the morning – the moment hostilities ceased in 1918.


The number of fatalities in these two wars boggles the mind – there are simply too many zeroes to compute. In WWI, it is estimated that there were anywhere between 15 million and 22 million casualties, including military personnel and civilian deaths. WWII added a staggering 70-90 million to this total. (And that’s before we reckon up the number of animals who died in the service of man during those conflicts, as detailed in Caro Ramsay’s beautiful blog about the Hyde Park memorial.)


Those who are skilled with statistics calculate that the number of people killed in WWII was roughly 3.5 percent of the entire population of the planet, which totalled around 2.3 billion in 1940. To bring that into context, if there was a similar war today, and the same percentage of the world’s population was killed, the dead would number 274,295,000.


As it was, everywhere in the UK (as with every other nation involved) saw the flower of their youth march off to war – many never to return. There are memorials in every town and village, usually erected after WWI, with more names added in 1945. Often, the same last names crop up over again, as members of the same local families fought, and fell, and died.


This is why it is such a surprise when you come across a sign like the ones at the top of this blog, for villages that claim to be Thankful. You may have to look hard to find one, though – there aren’t many around.


Reason to be Thankful

After WWI, it was discovered that, of the tens of thousands of villages in England and Wales, fifty-three stood out. All the men who had gone to fight returned safely. Not one village in Scotland or Ireland has yet been identified as being so lucky.


Of the fifty-three Thankful Villages – also known as Blessed Villages – the most fortunate county was Somerset. Here, there are nine places on the list, followed by Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, with five each, then Nottinghamshire with four. Gloucestershire, Leicestershire, and Suffolk have three each. The rest have one or two.


In Derbyshire, the county I currently call home, there is just one Thankful Village  – Bradbourne, home of the oldest surviving watermill in Derbyshire.


Bradbourne has another claim to fame, however. It is one of only fourteen villages that classify as Doubly Thankful. All its combatants in WWII also returned safely at the end of that conflict.


The Doubly Thankful villages are:


Herodsfoot in Cornwall


Bradbourne in Derbyshire


Langton Herring in Dorset


Ironically perhaps, Upper Slaughter in Gloucestershire


Middleton-on-the-Hill in Herefordshire


Arkholme-with-Cawood, and Nether Kellet in Lancashire


Allington, Flixborough, and High Toynton in Lincolnshire


Stocklinch, and Woolley in Somerset


Butterton in Staffordshire


St Michael South Elmham in Suffolk


Catwick in Yorkshire


As well as Llanfihangel-y-Creuddyn in Ceredigion, Wales


And Herbrandston in Pembrokeshire, Wales


The term Thankful Village was made popular by the educator, writer, and journalist, Arthur Henry Mee. Mee worked on The Children’s Encyclopædia (called The Book of Knowledge in the USA) before founding a weekly publication, The Children’s Newspaper in 1919. Much of Mee’s writing looked back to the years immediately following WWI. He is best known for The King’s England, a series of guides to the counties of England.


To put the Thankful Villages into perspective, only one village in the whole of France came through WWI with no casualties – Thierville in Normandy. Even more remarkably, Thierville’s small population also survived the Franco-Prussian War, WWII, the First Indochina War, and the Algerian War without a single fatality, either.


Reasons to be Thankful, indeed.


This week’s Word of the Week is nepotism, which comes from the Italian, nepotismo, which in turn is taken from the Latin, nepos, meaning nephew. It dates back to the Middle Ages, when Catholic popes and bishops would bestow the kinds of office and favours that would be normally given by fathers to sons, to their nephews instead. Pope Paul III appointed two of his nephews – aged just fourteen and sixteen – as cardinals.


It wasn’t until 1692 that Pope Innocent XII issued a papal bull that prohibited popes from bestowing such honours, titles, or income onto relatives. In more recent times, the phrase ‘nepo baby’ has come into use to describe celebrities whose main claim to fame is being the offspring of someone more famous.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

What Did Ancient Greeks Eat


Reykjavik, Iceland


On Wednesday evening I returned from eight days in Iceland eating my way through five delectable days at Iceland Noir and three more scrumptious ones touring Iceland’s magical southern coast along with three dozen or so fellow mystery writers and their partners. I followed that up with Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner and loads of leftovers assembled by my daughter for a “follow-up Friday feast.”

Is it any wonder then that when I thought of what to write about this Saturday, “food” kept flashing through my mind as the logical subject. So, I looked for inspiration in Greece’s “Ekathimerini” newspaper, and lo and behold found an article it had borrowed from Greece-is, written by Duncan Howitt-Marshall.

I figured that if it’s good enough for Athens’ newspaper of record to borrow, it’s good enough for me to do the same—especially since it bears the on-point title “What did the ancient Greeks eat?”

Perhaps next week I’ll find an answer to how those same Greeks shed extra kilos—other than through sword play. But for today I’ll stick to sharing this article written by Mr. Howitt-Marshall, a well published archaeologist. 

Duncan Howitt-Marshall

It is widely acknowledged that the traditional Greek diet is one of the healthiest in the world. Rich in fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, oily fish, and a moderate amount of animal protein – mainly from white cheese and yogurt – health experts agree that the Greek diet can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and even improve your cognition. But how similar was the diet of the ancient Greeks? And was it just as healthy and balanced?

In many ways, the everyday eating habits of the ancient Greeks were quite similar to today’s Greeks. While a number of key ingredients used in the modern cuisine would have been absent from ancient kitchens, including tomatoes, peppers and potatoes, brought from the Americas after the 15th century, and rice from India and China, the diet was still largely based around the “Mediterranean triad” of cereals, olives and grapes, and leaned heavily towards the consumption of beans, lentils and nuts.


Ancient olive

Following the rhythm of the seasons, scholars believe that up to 80 percent of the ancient Greek population would have been employed in agricultural work at any given time. Farmers harvested olives and grapes in the autumn months and cereals in the summer, and, depending on the availability of land, raised livestock (goats and sheep being the most common). But due to the relatively poor quality of the soil – described in ancient texts as “stringy” or “tight” – crop yields were low, which likely explains the rapid expansion of Greek colonialism from the 8th century BC onwards.

Whilst wealthy Greeks were able to afford elaborate meals and banquets (“symposia” – literally “gathering of drinkers”) that boasted a wide variety of ingredients, including finely selected and prepared meats, the diet of the average Greek would have been relatively simple and frugal.


Much like today, cereals formed the mainstay of the ancient diet. The two main grains were wheat and barley, baked into loaves or flatbreads, and, for special occasions and religious festivals, into cakes made with oats, chickpeas, sesame and honey. Today’s Christmas cookies, melomakarona, are thought to be derived from the ancient “makaria,” made from flour, olive oil and honey, and eaten at funerals.

Olives and olive oil were also important components of the everyday diet. Olive trees have been grown and harvested in Greece since at least the mid-4th millennium BC, likely earlier, and olive oil was traded across the length and breadth of the Mediterranean throughout antiquity. Besides food, olive oil was used in religious rituals, as fuel for lamps, and for medicinal and cosmetic purposes (Aristotle even recommended it as a form of birth control).

Olive cultivation

Wine was consumed throughout the day, from breakfast time to the evening meal, and was generally mixed with water. The best wines hailed from Thasos, Lesvos and Chios, and, like olive oil, was a widely traded commodity. The ancient Greeks also sweetened their wine with honey, and made therapeutic concoctions by adding thyme, pennyroyal, and other herbs.


Seafood was also widely consumed, much like today, including squid, octopus, cuttlefish, prawns and crayfish. Island and coastal communities had the best access to fresh fish, but sardines, anchovies and sprats (the cheapest) were oftentimes dried and salted and transported inland. Indeed, dried/salted fish was a cheap source of protein for poorer citizens throughout Greece. Other sources of animal protein included milk and cheese, from sheep and goat, and “oxygala,” an early ancestor of yogurt.

Salted sardines

The consumption of meat was much less common than today (except for pork sausages). For many city-dwellers, roasted meat was only consumed at religious festivals and on special occasions. Fresh meat was prohibitively expensive – a piglet, for example, cost three drachmas, which was three days’ wages for a public servant – but for those in the countryside, wild fowl (quail, pheasants, mallards), hares, boar and deer would have been more readily available.

Pig sacrifice

While modern nutritionists argue that the first meal of the day should be your biggest – “Breakfast like a king; lunch like a prince; dinner like a pauper” – the ancient Greeks believed the opposite was true. Breakfast (“akratisma”) was usually a very simple affair of barley bread, similar to today’s paximadi rusks, dipped in wine, and a side dish of figs or olives. Various sorts of pancake (“tiganites”) were also available, made with wheat flour, olive oil, honey, and curdled milk. 

A light lunch (“ariston”) was taken around midday or early afternoon, consisting of salted fish, bread, cheese and olives, and selection of fruits (grapes/raisins, figs, apples, pears and plumes/prunes) and nuts (walnuts and almonds). Some opted for a light afternoon snack (“hesperisma”) of bread and olives and dried fruits.

Dinner (“deipnon”), taken at nightfall, was the biggest and most important meal of the day. It was also the time when wealthier Greeks would host dinner parties with extended family and friends, although men and women frequently ate separately. “Meze-style” dishes included a selection of lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas and broad beans, as well as bread, cheese, olives, eggs, fruits and nuts. Fish would have been eaten, too, including sea bream, red mullet, sardines and eels.

Fish dish

Despite the paucity of fresh meat in the ancient Greek diet, pork sausages were nevertheless widely available and affordable to the urban poor. Soups would have also been a regular feature in the diet, made from lentils – the workman’s dish – beans and vegetables (onions, garlic, cabbage and turnips). The most famous soup from ancient Greek antiquity was the Spartan “Black Broth” (“melas zomos”), made with pork, salt, vinegar and blood.

Sweets and desserts were available, too, including “plakous” and “kortoplakous,” possible ancestors of baklava. Similar to the ancient Roman “placenta cake,” a honey-covered baked layered-dough dessert, kortoplakous was made of thin sheets of pastry, almonds, walnuts and honey.

I think that’s enough to chew on for this week, folks!


Friday, November 25, 2022

No ref 2. Says who?


"Scottish independence: Pro-Union parties rule out taking part in SNP’s ‘de facto’ second referendum"

Yesterday the supreme court ruled that the Scottish government cannot hold a legal referendum without the consent of the Westminster Parliament. As expected this has just caused a whole lot of trouble as some see it as undemocratic and others see it as a clear cut decision to avoid the Catalonia situation. 

Ms Sturgeon has seen it as the 'democratic voice of the people of Scotland being silenced' whereas I tend to believe that being allowed to vote for something is a tenant of democracy. We had a vote. We said no. That was supposed to a once in a generation decision.

"Scottish independence activists urge Sturgeon to ‘trust yes movement’ "

Here are two examples  of 'not quite thinking it through' – we have a gender bill going through the Scottish parliament which I hope will be tweaked before it is ratified, but the United Nations has warned the Scottish Government that this act of law could allow male sexual predators to enter female ‘safe areas’ such as prisons, spousal abuse accommodation etc. It's one of those situations  that seems like a wonderful and liberated concept... until.....

"Westminster leaders ‘scared’ of indyref2, claims Sturgeon

Another situation not quite thought through is the fact that the Scottish government has banned any increase of the rent on residential properties, and also you cannot evict people for non payment of rent. Yes you read that right. 

There’s already legislation in place to stop the ‘evil landlord’ situation – there’s a sort of nationwide rent control system in place already. In reality this new law means that as interest rates have rocketed, often the mortgage payment on rental property is more than the rent, and the landlord cannot increase  the rent to cover the additional cost. Also, the tenant can refuse to pay any rent at all and there’s nothing the landlord can do about it until next summer – the logic behind this is that the tenant will need the rental money to pay their heating bill. Westminster are giving £66 per month to every household to help with the heating, the over 65s and the vulnerable are getting £600 as a single payment to help out. 

Newly independent Scotland would see living standards decline, academic warns

So here are two scenarios that are arising.

Tenants just refuse to pay rent, they can’t be evicted so the landlord quietly sits in the corner and sulks as they have no income. And can't pay their heating bill.  Many landlords saw it coming and sold their properties. So now the ability to rent a property is very restricted; there are 500 hundred people going after every rental property in Glasgow. 

There seems to be a failure to understand that rental property serves a market of students, mobile workers, doctors doing placements etc. And also nice tenants who know their rent is less than the monthly mortgage are now worried that the property is going to be sold and they need to leave. But they will be one in the 500 looking to rent elsewhere. Down the chain, this is alreadyt pushing up the figures of homeless people. Like I’ve said before it’s a simple solution to a very complex problem. 

Nicola Sturgeon accused of 'copying Trump' after rebranding independence bid as 'democracy movement'

The Scottish government does not like private landlords they see us as exploitative capitalists but those of us of a certain age were advised to but property as a pension, this was many years ago after the endowment mortgage scandal. Property was safe, it's a good place to put your money.  So, if I retire, I either bump my lovely tenants out - they have been there for decades, or I pay them to live there.

Anybody up for a MIE Go Fund Caro facebook page.  I need wine and chocolate!


Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Turkey's POV

 Michael - Thanksgiving 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Assuming that you celebrate it, of course. Turkeys generally don't, except perhaps for the one who gets feted at the White House. 

Although many countries have a harvest festival of some sort, Thanksgiving is rather specifically a north American festival, although there are spin-offs in the Caribbean and even in Liberia, because of their American connections. Black Friday, however, has spread around the world as a bargain sale day. That shows the power of commerce and marketing, I suppose.

But back to the turkeys. How do they fit in? One's immediate thought would be that wild turkeys were common, and so when it came to celebrating a plentiful harvest, they were available for the center piece of the feast. However, it seems more likely that the turkey was added afterwards when Sarah Josepha Hale, the 19th century American author of Mary Had a Little Lamb and other classics, popularized turkey as the main course for Thanksgiving dinner by featuring it in her novel, Northwood.

The domestic turkey is a descendant of the north American variety. Probably these turkeys' best chance is to be sent to the White House as a Thanksgiving gift. That's been a long tradition, but George H W Bush seems to have started a policy of "pardoning" the turkey. The presentation of a domestic turkey from the National Turkey Federation is followed by the pardoning and then the turkey goes to a good home instead of a good dinner. 

Apparently, Ronald Reagan came up with the idea when he was getting flack over the pardoning of Oliver North in the disastrous Contra scandal. All rather odd, since the turkey had obviously done nothing that required a pardon whereas Oliver North obviously had. Perhaps the media are a bit less sympathetic to presidents these days. History does not record whether the president has a different Turkey for dinner afterwards...

Speaking of different "turkeys", there seems some confusion about the African Guinea Fowl. Then there are chickens in Madagascar almost the size of turkeys, so they may have been involved in some way also.

And because I arrived in Brisbane two days ago, I must mention the Australian Brush Turkey. Not great to eat, I'm told, but they are impressive construction engineers. The males make huge nests basically of compost and use the heat generated by the compost heap to incubate the eggs. Great idea! Unless the compost used to be your garden. But Brush Turkeys have all been prepardoned, so you just have to live with it...

Brush turkey nest

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Diasporan Guilt

Definition of diasporan guilt

Diasporan guilt is the term I've coined to define a pervasive feeling of bad conscience for being fortunate to live in a prosperous country (usually UK, France, USA, Canada etc.) while people suffer with poverty in one's birth country in the global south. 

What is the African diaspora?

The word diaspora comes from the Greek διασπορά, meaning "a scattering. Originally, its most common usage was in connection with the Jewish diaspora, but its been extended to other groups, particularly this century. The African diaspora is the global collection of African descendants dispersed throughout the world as a result of historic events, specifically the 16th- to 19th century slave trade from primarily West and Central Africa to the US, Brazil, and Haiti. An aside note, although we hear more about slavery in relation to the US, less than 5% of the total number of slaves were trafficked to the US. More of them went to the Caribbean and South America, particularly Brazil. 

In addition, the African diaspora often refers to Africans who have migrated from the continent but maintain a deep interest in the motherland and a willingness to contribute in different ways to the development of the continent. In fact, the African Union defined the African diaspora as "consisting of people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union."

An estimated 11 million Africans were dispersed by the Atlantic slave trade. The modern-day African diaspora numbers about 140 million while the African continents population is 1.4 billion.

The African diaspora and politics

The African diasporan phenomenon digs deep into sensitive issues of racism, colonialism, and global domination. Slavery was a system that reflected all of those things and along with slavery came internecine warfare on the African continent. The partition of Africa , also called the “scramble for Africa,” a divvying up of the continent by Europeans in their own interest and not Africa’s, occurred from 1881-1914, during which time the colonization occurred at full speed. In 1884 the German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck held a Berlin conference the purpose of which was essentially to prevent Europeans from fighting each other over territory--who cared about the Africans?

No one knows what Africa would have been like without the slavery and colonization. The African geographic divisions imposed by the Europeans often ignored natural landmarks and political ethnic histories. Could there have been more African unity and development without all these partitions? Whatever the case, Americans and Europeans and Africans came into contact with each other and account for the mixed ethnic nature on either side’s countries to the extent that it exists. In response to a British person’s objection to Indians coming to the UK, standup comedian Russell Peters retorted, “Wait a minute, you started the whole thing!” 

We know many Africans in the diaspora in general do extraordinarily well in their adopted countries, some becoming highly skilled individuals like neurosurgeons. There’s a cruel irony that Africa is suffering from brain drain, and the continent’s best brains are successfully living in the same countries that continue to exploit Africa, particularly in the extractive industries like gold and oil. Foreign aid goes largely into the pockets of the elite ruling class, and I agree with Dambisa Moyo that foreign aid, which arose out of colonization, is not an effective solution to underdevelopment in Africa. It perpetuates the dependency relationship Africa has with the west, and now, with the Chinese.

How diasporan guilt affects me

I have a theory that the dependency relationship Africa has with the west extends to individual Africans. In Ghana, there’s an odd preference given to “asking/begging for stuff” than working to get it--both governmentally and individually. My three brothers and I have family in Ghana on my father’s side and the requests for funds and phones etc. are common. Carlos, the ex-caretaker of our family property in Ghana is barely making it, especially since unemployment and inflation are soaring in Ghana.  I’ve covered Carlos's family’s hospital bills, rent, school for the kids, and so on--apart from the expensive phones and tablets I take for them on my visits. Two of my brothers are quite firm in not getting involved with any such “charitable deeds.” They just don’t see the point, and in some ways I think they’re correct; and like Dambisa Moyo, this giving to the poor can generate a dependency that never ends. Indeed, in a way, my supporting Carlos, his wife, and four kids is a little ridiculous, not to mention unsustainable. But I still do it. Why? Diasporan guilt. I live in a nice house and buy sh*t on Amazon while they suffer in Ghana. Rational or not, it’s a strong sentiment.

Maybe the diasporan guilt was born of my leaving Ghana decades ago when the going got rough with the then-military government and the country’s accompanying economic collapse. Perhaps I felt I had deserted or abandoned friends and family members. My late father was Ghanaian, and even though I don’t even have a Ghanaian passport, the ties to Ghana are clearly still strong. But my always matter-of-fact Black American mother pointed out that even though I was born in Ghana, I’m American through her (jus sanguinis), so I have every right to live in the States. And think about it: if I had never moved to the US, I might well not have created Darko Dawson and Emma Djan. Isn’t life strange?

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Shadows and Stories

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

It's been a very 'interesting' week, but I was finding it hard to come up with a big, meaningful topic, and yes, I've been finding it hard to focus too--just sent in a draft and I'm feeling a bit scrambled. 

So this is just going to be about a couple of small things that came up this past week.

This is a shot from outside one of the venues of the just concluded Singapore Writers' Festival:

It's the last line of 'If... else', a poem by Cyril Wong, (the link is to the whole poem) and is what made me decide to just look at some of the shadows.

Shadow 1: the (probably American) lady tourist

I was in an MRT Station when this lady was talking to the security guard kind of loudly, wanting him to show her where to go. Her husband was saying they'd exited at the wrong station and she kept telling him (her husband) to shut up (!)
It seems someone had told the lady to get off after four stops and the guard said 'four stops correct, but wrong direction. So now opposite direction, you go eight stops. Take escalator down--' he pointed.

Her husband wanted to go, but the lady was angry with the security guard for pointing at the escalator rather than taking her down. 
And she was angry with someone at the previous station for giving her the wrong information and wanted him to record her complaint. 
But since she'd pulled down her mask to complain more clearly, the security guard kept saying 'please put on your mask inside the station' every time she stopped for breath, which made her even more angry.

I'd slowed to a stop to watch (not that I walk very fast at the best of times) and two young girls stopped next to me. 
'We are passing Bencoolen,' one said.
'Me also,' I said.
'We can show you the platform,' the other girl said to her.

Now that's when the post earthquake tsunami started. 
Apparently we three (one 60+ female and two teenage girls) were part of the 'gang' that had deliberately sent them the wrong way to rob them!
I don't know if it was because we were wearing masks or because the girls were wearing tudung (head scarves) but the lady started saying she saw through us and she knew we'd been following her since she arrived in Singapore (no we hadn't. At least I hadn't!) and telling her husband not to let us get their names (?) or we would follow them to the hotel and rob them of their passports and identities (?)... and get them arrested.

The good thing was, she finally let her husband bring her down the escalator.

Anyway, I asked the Security Guard, 'are you okay?' and he said, 'No problem lah, it's my job. I pity her husband,'

The girls and I went down the escalator too, at a safe distance. 
I saw the lady and her husband on the platform and went several carriages down from them so she didn't think she was being followed again, so I didn't see if they got off at the right stop (kind of hoping she didn't!)

What surprised me was how shaken up and angry I felt after, even though it had nothing whatsoever to do with me. I'd been feeling quite mellow before the encounter, but after that I found it hard to read/enjoy my ride.
And it stirred up all kinds of bad feelings in me, like my brain wanted to pick on how she was overweight and underdressed and flabby though all that had nothing to do with their getting lost. Like the anger in her created anger shadows inside me. 

It also made me feel/ fear/ realise that if I found myself lost in a strange country I could so very easily become her, projecting all my fears on everyone and everything around me.

And worst of all, it made me want to shake/ smack/ shout at her for picking on the security guard whose fault it clearly wasn't! In other words, the anger shadow had got inside of me and were ready to grow. And if I'd shouted back at her to contradict the stuff she was saying about Singapore and us I would be getting into that anger shadow zone with her.  

I must say I was very impressed by the Security Guard for remaining so stoic-calm.

Anyway, that was Shadow 1. If we're all shadows here, I don't know we made any kind of dent in the light but I hope they got back to their hotel okay.

Shadow 2: Big birthday that became a wake

This one is just part of life. A big 88th birthday event was planned, but instead we ended up at a wake. No, not for the birthday boy--who seemed positively chuffed to have outlasted another of his generation. It wasn't unexpected, just another reminder that life doesn't go on forever--which I find makes the good moments better and the bad moments seem much less of a big deal.

And that leads to my second quote (from the same poem of Cyril's) of the week: 

I've always had a big fear of the nothing. Our poems, our stories, our plays--these are the things that record momentary blips of existence in the big nothing.

And I realise that turning my Shadow 1 into a story has already made me feel better about what happened there.

Hopefully I can rootle through all the nothings and come up with more stories!
Happy Tuesday everyone! 


Monday, November 21, 2022

Escaping into the story

Annamaria on Monday

The most important thing to me as a reader is to escape into the story. I want from a novel that feeling that I have left where I am, and in a way, even who I am, and that I am now somewhere else, with people who are doing something really interesting. The most important thing to me as a storyteller is to create a story in which a reader can get lost. As a writer, I do everything I can to make the story flow in such a way that it never throws the reader off and drags the reader out of the story.

There are lots of pitfalls in storytelling that can give the reader pause.  Sentences that don't flow easily or are constructed in such a way the that reader must puzzle over what is happening. Or just plain mistakes like using "infer" when the writer means "imply."

Deeper problems might involve one of the protagonists doing something completely out of character, given what the story has told the reader about her as a person.  Or just wrong headedness, as for instance, in a story I read that took place in Rome. The characters took more than an hour to get from Castel Sant'Angelo to Piazza Navona, a distance that would take not more than a ten-minute walk. That sort of thing makes me want to throw the book across the room. It's fiction. If I'm supposed to believe it in it, I need to find it convincing.

We historical novelist face many other potholes that can make staying in the story a bumpy ride for our readers. We have to always be on the lookout for anachronisms. If the setting is Ancient Rome when there are no clocks, the characters cannot plan to meet at 2 AM. If the setting is the American Revolutionary War, the characters cannot fight with rilfles.

We must be particularly careful about what words we put in the mouths of historical characters. For instance, in researching the first book of my Africa series, I turned – as I often do to memoirs, in this case of people who had feet on the ground in British East Africa in the 19-teens.  I found one in which a man recounted his life as a British policeman.  What a gold mine for me.  He told an anecdote about dealing with some drunkards who were shooting up a bar. I borrowed his experience and gave something very similar to my fictional policeman, Justin Tolliver. The real policeman, in telling his story, used the phrase "they got the drop on me." A phrase that was evidently familiar at that time. But here's the thing: to a 21st-century reader, that phrase sounds too modern for my story that takes place in 1911. I knew I couldn't use it without making me reader stop to wonder whether that phrase was anachronistic. I couldn't take that chance. So, Justin thinks that the bad guy "got the advantage" of him. 

There are lots of phrases that we use all the time that have been around for decades, if not centuries. The fact that a historical novelist can prove that they are of the time is irrelevant. The important thing is will the reader see them and just keep going, or will the reader, instead of getting on with the story, suddenly become more interested in whether or not that phrase belongs.

Here are some phrases that have been around for a long time.  What do you think? Would they seem out of place in stories that are set in the times they were first used?


Turn a blind eye

In 1801 a superior officer flagged Horatio Nelson, to withdraw during the battle of Copenhagen.  The story goes that Nelson, who was blind in one eye, held up his telescope to his bad eye and, having not seen the order, fought on.

Crocodile tears

In the 14th century, a traveler named Sir John Mandeville wrote, in a book about his travels in Asia, "these serpents sley men and eat them weeping..."

Spill the beans

In the time of Alexander the Great, votes were taken by having the decision makers put one of two colored beans into a vase – white for yes or black or brown for no.  Spilling the beans out and counting them revealed the winner. What would you think of an author of a story set in Alexander's time who had a foot soldier say, "He spilled the beans."

Three Sheets to the Wind

This term for being out-of-control drunk harkens back to the days of sailing ships. If the ropes that held the sails (sheets) in place were not properly fastened, but were blowing around in the wind, the ship was not under proper control.

Skin of your teeth

This sounds pretty modern to me, but it's really used in the book of Job in the Old Testament.

Raining cats and dogs.

This first appeared in the 1710 poem "Description of a City Shower" by Jonathan Swift!  But I know it would be a big mistake for me to put these words in the mouth of a character in the 17th century nove.

A little bird told me

This image started with Ecclesiastes in the Bible, but it was Shakespeare, who really made it popular. 

Red letter day

This phrase actually comes from the Medieval Book of Common Prayer, where holy days were noted in red ink. 

So, as you can see, we historical novelists, have to watch our word choice. Otherwise, we would have our characters biting the bullet before there were firearms or flying by the seat of their pants before they were airplanes.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Iceland Noir, Here We Come Again




Today we’re off to our fifth appearance at Iceland Noir, the shining frosty star at the very top of a glorious tree of writers get-togethers. That’s my way of saying this post shall be brief.


I LOVE ICELAND NOIR.  It’s unique in the world of book festivals because there is only one track of panels (allowing all to see every panel), AND not a book for sale in sight! Iceland Noir is not about selling books, it’s about hanging out with your mates in a family reunion sort of affair hosted by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Oskar Gudmundsson, Ragnar Jonasson, and Eva Bjorg Aegisdottir.  


The town of Reykjavik, the people, the ambiance, the nightlife, all create a sense of what legendary Berlin or Paris must have been like in their heydays, seasoned with a bit of old Amsterdam. Whatever it is, this place has all the right vibes, and it’s a joy to be back.


Plus, the island nation’s non-urban landscape is pure magic and other worldly.  It’s hard not to be inspired by a visit to Iceland.


Below is a hodgepodge of photos taken at last year’s festival and on a post-festival a trip into the countryside by some of us. I’ll leave it up to you to identify the folk…as there should be a bit of mystery to this post rather than just my rambling on as if a commercial for the Iceland National Tourist Board. 


For more details on who’ll be participating in this year’s festival, click on this link.