Sunday, April 30, 2023

Adventures in Wales

Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival and Portmeirion

Zoë Sharp


There’s something soulful about being near the sea. I rather miss no longer living close enough to smell the salt water or hear the rhythmic rush of waves on a shingle beach. Even the cry of seagulls makes me come over all nostalgic and a little misty-eyed.


So last weekend—April 21st-23rd—I was delighted to find myself at the western edge of Wales, in Aberystwyth for the Gŵyl CRIME CYMRU Festival. The Festival was split between two venues in the town—both a stone's skip from the seafront. One was the rather splendid Public Library, on Queen’s Square. The other was just along Portland Street at the Ceredigion Museum.


The museum is located in an old Edwardian theatre, with a grand staircase and intact auditorium. Because it’s actually two buildings now knocked into one, getting from one floor to another was not as straightforward as you might think. Indeed, unravelling a piece of thread as you went might have been wise until you got the hang of the layout. 

(And, of course, as every good crime writer knows, the clew of thread—as given to Theseus by Ariadne to help guide him out of the labyrinth on Knossos after slaying the minotaur—gave rise to the modern word clue.)


But I digress.


I was fortunate enough to be invited to take part in the Festival, and appeared on a panel with fellow Murder Is Everywhere blogmate, Caro Ramsay. We were ably chaired by Sarah Ward, on the topic of Trade Secrets and Twisted Identities, in which Caro admitted she wrote her first crime story at about the age of four or five, which began with the words, ‘Emily was the first to die…’


Is it any wonder I really like this woman?

(l to r) Zoë Sharp, Caro Ramsay, Sarah Ward

The Festival was packed with interesting events, from the Dragon Parade along the promenade (dragon-based paraphernalia optional) to the murder mystery play that was performed during the interval in the Gala Quiz on Friday evening. There were several panels or workshops delivered solely in the Welsh language, and others that were bilingual.


The local branch of Waterstone’s, run by the delightful Chloe Tilson, was in charge of the book room, where they were happy to take the indie authors’ books on consignment, and made a point of getting all the stock copies they’d brought with them signed by attendees. Such a nice touch.

Zoë Sharp and Friend.
(Pic courtesy of Waterstones Aberystwyth)

Meanwhile, authors not yet published had an opportunity to pitch to agents, and there were online events in the run-up to the weekend. Even the local bars got into the spirit of things (pun intended.)

Altogether, it was fun, friendly, and very well organised. Who could ask for more than that?


Well, maybe a touch more sunshine…



Alis Hawkins

Chair of the Festival was the energetic and seemingly ever-cheerful Alis Hawkins, who was one of the founder members of CRIME CYMRU.


Back in 2016, she wanted to bring the crime writers of Wales together in a mutually supportive group. After discussions with fellow scribes Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson, CRIME CYMRU was launched the following year.


Its remit was ‘to support crime writers with a real and present relationship with Wales; to contribute to the development of new Welsh crime-writing talent; and to promote Wales, contemporary Welsh culture and Welsh crime-writing in particular, to the wider world.’


Not all of the forty-plus published authors with full membership set their work in Wales. Some were born or live and work there, or have ties to Welsh universities or other cultural institutions. Those who can’t claim such close ties may be permitted to become Associate members.


I have my application in. Whether they accept a Great Uncle from Colwyn Bay as any kind of link remains to be seen…


The weekend was fascinating, but mine didn’t end with the very interesting Self Publishing Journey panel on Sunday morning. (Featuring David Penny and Graham H Miller, kept in line by GB (Gail) Williams.)



I’d planned my route back to Derbyshire as a roundabout one. As I was so far west, it made sense to me to detour up the coast to Portmeirion on Sunday, before heading home again.


Clearly, great minds think alike here, as Caro was also to be found in that locale, along with fellow author Douglas Skelton. She had come prepared with props, all the better to illustrate her Blog Number 6 on the cult TV show of 1967/68—The Prisoner.


I was not so well-prepared. In fact, I had no idea that there was a convention catering to devotees of that show, who were everywhere, in brilliant costumes. The attendees were re-enacting the game of Human Chess from the episode ‘Checkmate’ when I arrived.


One could only assume it was of their own free will…


The Architect

Portmeirion was the brainchild of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, a major figure in the development of Welsh architecture during the early twentieth century.

Sir Clough Williams-Ellis at Portmeirion in 1969

In 1925, he purchased the estate of Aber lâ, meaning ice estuary, as the site of his proposed ideal village, having been inspired by Portofino in Italy. Geographically, the estate at the mouth of the River Dwyryd had everything he was after. Steep cliffs overlooking a wide sandy estuary, old buildings surviving from the estate’s previous incarnation as a late 18th-century foundry and boatyard, woods, and streams.


Williams-Ellis changed the name to Portmeirion. Port- from its location on the coast, just below the outstretched arm of Wales, and –meirion from the county of Meirionydd in which it lay.

His first task was to convert the house on the shore to a hotel, which opened for the Easter weekend in April 1926. The construction of the village was done in two stages. The most distinctive buildings, mostly influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement, were erected between 1925 and 1939. During this time, Williams-Ellis also bought the adjacent Victorian crenellated mansion, Castell Deudraeth, from the estate of his uncle.


Work was paused during the war years, then phase two began from 1954 to 1976, filling in the remaining structures in a more Palladian style. Williams-Ellis was noted for salvaging parts of other buildings for his project, and referred to Portmeirion as, “a home for fallen buildings.”


The last cottage to be built was The Tollgate, which was finished when Williams-Ellis was 93, in 1977. He died the following year, and the village was subsequently taken over by a charitable trust. It has always been a tourist destination. As well as the hotel, there are 13 cottages available to let on a self-catering basis.


Famous Visitors

Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit while staying in the Upper Fountain suite. HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw also visited, as did the Beatles. In fact, George Harrison spent his fiftieth birthday in Portmeirion.


Actors Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman stayed there, as did Frank Lloyd Wright. Numerous films, documentaries, and music videos have been filmed there—in addition to The Prisoner, of course.


Fun Facts


In no particular order:


Portmeirion Pottery was begun in 1961 by the daughter of Williams-Ellis, Susan, and her husband.


Williams-Ellis purchased and converted an old Porthmadog trading ketch which he moored alongside the quay—the Amis Reunis, which means Friends Reunited. It was used as a houseboat until it broke loose and became stranded on a shoal. After attempts to salvage the vessel failed, any parts that could be rescued were brought ashore and a stone boat was built into part of the quay instead.


The outdoor giant chess board was part of the set dressing for The Prisoner. A permanent one was added only in 2016.


In accordance with his wishes, twenty years after Williams-Ellis died and was cremated, some of his ashes were placed in a rocket and fired over the estuary at Portmeirion during a New Year's Eve firework display.


What a way to go!


This week’s Word of the Week is hiraeth, a Welsh word that means longing for home. It's similar to the English words homesickness or nostalgia and, like them, can be applied not just to home but also to an earlier time or a person. Hiraeth contains an extra dimension that what is missed may no longer exist and is therefore forever out of reach.


Saturday, April 29, 2023

Mykonos, Here I Come!


Tuesday, I return to Greece where I shall remain until returning to the US in late summer for Bouchercon in San Diego.

I can't wait to be back on Mykonos. I understand a lot has changed on the island over the winter, much of it being widely reported in news stories of the sort you'd think only a wild-eyed crime fiction writer might conjure up. If you're interested in such juicy details, just hit "Mykonos" on your browser to see what's been drawing so much attention to its reputation as the World's Mediterranean playground for the rich and would like to be famous. 

I've already written a book exploring my thoughts on that subject--make that two books ("Mykonos After Midnight" and "The Mykonos Mob")--and am done addressing that topic (for now).  Besides, I'm having great fun mysterifying oh so many other glorious places in Greece. 

Instead, I decided to reminisce a bit by rerunning a post I put up some half-dozen years ago on the eve of another return home to the Island of the Winds.  So here goes...

Mykonos today is very different from even a decade ago, and as  different as night is to day from its hard times, make that very hard times.  The island once was among Greece’s most impoverished places.  Mykonians literally starved to death during World War II.  Then came the Greek Civil War.

Once I'm back on Mykonos I promise to share with you as much as good taste will allow of present day life on that international jet set summer destination.  But how did it came to pass that a community still guided by centuries-old church traditions and deeply held family values so effortlessly coexists amid the unstructured, freewheeling lifestyle of visiting summer hedonists?

I think the simplest way of telling the story of that transition is out of the archives of Dimitris Koutsoukos--which includes some photographs taken by the extraordinary photographer and honorary Greek citizen, Robert A. McCabe.  Dimitri is a native Mykonian who has amassed a fascinating collection of photographs capturing the essence of the island, many of which are posted to music on YouTube videos available through this link.

Dimitris Koutsoukos amid the old and the new.

Dimitri, the photographs please…

These were the days that set the island’s modern day roots, when all Mykonians had was each other.  It was the turn of the 20th Century.

Naturally, many lived off the sea and learned their skills from childhood.

Others survived as farmers.

Some depended on both.

Then came regular boat service linking the island to the mainland.

And with that tourists looking to experience traditional island life.

But one day a very famous visitor stepped ashore and forever changed the image of Mykonos.

International celebrity Petros the Pelican arrives with friend.

And glitz began to flock there.

Turning fishermen into guides.

Bringing energy to quiet beaches.

And, of course, making nice with the locals.

In the process each learned much from other.

Tourists how to dance...

...locals how to dress.

And they became friends.

It is a life to which I long to return.
Mykonians tolerating tourists
And for a musical understanding of the draw of Greece, check out this YouTube Video.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Blog Number 6

I was sure it did.


Could I escape out here?

Swim across here?

Make it down there?

There's a boat.
Cemented into the pier.

And the balloon

No escape at all.
I am a prisioner here.

They think it's a holiday camp.
( You can actually stay in the hotel here if you are totally bonkers)

A crime writer came to spy, to find out the truth.
He was an investigative journalist.
Loyal to the 601.
Or was he 6 of 1?

But the balloon sensed him.
Rovers will rove!

He was obliterated.
He was a man.
He wasn't a number.

He was a number.
He was number 6.
He was a man.
And an actor.

Close to the dreaded green dome.

The dome was calling us....

And calling them....

Oh dear....

Oh no.....

They were gathering

A monument to the designer of  'the place'

All from the imagination of one man.

Under the scrutiny of the dome

And each player takes their place...

The water is still.....

And so it begins
Will they get out alive?


                                                                         Will they ever get out at all?

No they didn't all survive.
Number 6 was felled by the ballon.
Never to be free
To remain a Prisioner forever.
With a capital P.

If you have no idea what this blog is about then you are probably quite young.
And sensible.

We survived.
 We had cake.

Dymuniadau gorau, welwch chi wythnos nesaf