Month: August 2013

The most atmospheric of writers…


One of the great pleasures to be obtained from reading crime fiction is that most crime writers are acutely aware of both the geography and the mood of the communities that they write about.  I won’t claim that there is such a thing as national character – I know that I shall immediately be shot down in flames if I even hint at it – but I’m certain that the massive popularity that Scandinavian crime writers have achieved owes a significant debt to the ambience of their work: the dark nights and cold days that they evoke, which in turn inspire brooding and melancholy characters who seem determined always to spot the worm in the bud, despite the consummate beauty of their surroundings.  Similarly, the novels of Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin, which are set in Italy, skilfully succeed in communicating the rich cultural heritage of that country.

No-one, however, captures the essence or psyche of a country better than Barbara Nadel.  Perhaps I should say city, rather than country, as all of her novels that I’ve read have been set in Istanbul.  With apparent ease, she captures the contradictions of a city that has always looked both East and West: its exoticism and squalor; the brutality of some of its people and the sophisticated philosophical outlook of others; the thrusting modernity that jostles but does not oust more ancient superstitions.  Other writers have written eloquently about this city, especially Orhan Pamuk, whose Nobel prize-winning work, so exquisitely wrought, seems to derive its depth from these very contradictions; yet, in my opinion, no-one, not even Pamuk, surpasses Nadel’s descriptions of Istanbul’s mean streets and boisterous crowds when she is writing at her best.

I’ve read three or four of her books now.  I particularly admire her depiction of her world-weary but wise and humorous detective, Çetin Ikmen, who is beleaguered not only by the absurdities of red tape and the inefficiency and bigotry of his colleagues at work, but also by his large, unruly and ever-growing extended family at home.  The latter is presided over by his ebullient and chaotic, much less well-educated wife, Fatma.

Harem is a particularly accomplished novel, because it examines issues of profound significance in Western countries through the filter of setting them in Istanbul.  This not only makes it easier for the Western European reader to read about them, but also points up the dual thinking still prevalent in almost all countries by presenting it as a peculiarly Turkish phenomenon.  This provokes the immediate response: ‘That couldn’t happen here!’, followed soon afterwards by: ‘Or could it?’ The original crimes committed in Harem are rape and the exploitation of women, leading in some instances to murder.  The first of the murder victims is Hatice, a friend of Ikmen’s teenage daughter Hulya.  Nadel’s account of Ikmen’s boss’s reluctance to pursue the girl’s murderers and bring them to justice because she evidently was not a virgin before they attacked her is particularly poignant.  We might try to flatter ourselves that such an attitude could not prevail in our country, were it not that only in the last few days a British barrister has described a thirteen-year-old girl against whom sexual offences were committed as ‘predatory’.  Nor does Nadel pull her punches when it comes to describing the perpetrators of rape.  Hatice had unwittingly become involved with a group of people practising organised depravity, but her case is mirrored by one even closer to home for Ikmen, that of the abusive relationship that exists between two of his own police officers.  As one would expect from a writer of Nadel’s talent, the moral conclusions that she draws are complex, but she is quite clear that women should never suffer from sexual abuse, whatever their personal moral code.  This message may seem obvious, yet it is one that societies everywhere seem to be taking a long time to digest.  Harem makes a very valuable contribution to the debate.

Of the other characters, several old friends feature in this novel.  My particular favourite is Mehmet Suleyman, Ikmen’s disdainfully aristocratic colleague, who in this book finds himself less able than usual to sail, cosseted and immaculate, through his life, as if the teeming, grubby throng of humanity that it is his job to police does not really exist.  Suleyman’s volatile Irish wife is suffering from post-natal depression and he has to run the gauntlet of her tantrums and her misery.  And then there is Fatma, impossible but lovable, weaving her idiosyncratic magic on her weary but essentially adoring husband.

I wholeheartedly recommend Harem.  If you’re new to Barbara Nadel, you won’t lose anything by starting with this book, as, despite being one of a series, it stands completely on its own, as such novels should.  However, I’m certain that, if you do read Harem first, it will make you also want to sample some of the others.

German craftwork at its best…

Sandstone 5
Sandstone 4
Sandstone 2
Sandstone 1
Sandstone 3
When I wrote about the potter of Nottuln a few days ago, I said that I would also shortly be describing the sandstone museum at Havixbeck, near the German city of Münster. It is a fascinating modern complex, aimed at tourists, though there is no charge for it and it is not situated in an area particularly noted for tourism. It is a place designed to celebrate and record an ancient craft: part museum, part atelier. Some of the exhibits have been displayed in reconstructed rooms as they might have existed in the past.
The museum celebrates more than five hundred years of sandstone carving (illustrated in the photographs here) by the three linked communities of Havixbeck, Billerbeck and Nottuln. Men from these communities worked together from the late middle ages onwards, forming themselves into a kind of guild. They did not regard themselves as artists, rather as craftsmen, and therefore most of the pieces that they made were created anonymously. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that a few individuals began to be named on the pieces, and these with no especial reverence. Until 1950, the workshops were often situated in the quarries where the sandstone was hewn.
The industry enjoyed a brief late flowering in the middle of the last century, when the sandstone workers were commissioned to undertake post-war repair work to the churches of the Münsterland. Thereafter, the industry went into decline (possibly linked to the simultaneously declining influence of the Catholic church in the area), though there are still a few artisans practising today. Many of the examples of the mediaeval sand carvings held by the museum were salvaged from bomb-damaged churches. There is an especially poignant photograph of Münster Cathedral, taken after a bombing raid, in which one of the twin towers has almost collapsed; the other is miraculously unscathed. This church has now been beautifully restored.
The men who worked the sandstone doubled up as farmers when their masonry skills were not needed. For this reason, members from the three communities were quite wealthy. Perhaps it was partly because they also worked the land that they lived to be a much higher than average age for stoneworkers. In the nineteenth century the average life expectancy for a man from these villages was sixty-one, as opposed to a (shocking!) thirty-seven for stoneworkers elsewhere in Germany at the time. Modern science suggests that another reason was that, uniquely, the sandstone from this area contains lime, which cut down the dust emitted when it was being cut and carved, meaning that the workers inhaled less into their lungs. The workers themselves attributed their longevity to schnapps, of which each would drink up to a litre a day! (Apparently it was less potent then than it is now.)
The elaborate patterns for the windows, tombs, shrines and altars that the masons carved were designed by an architect, or sometimes by a master mason. In mediaeval times, the templates of the patterns were made of wood; later, of thin metal. The workers had a dour but well-developed sense of humour: quarrying the stone required a huge expenditure of skill and energy, so if anyone spoilt a piece of it by making a mistake they were fined. Even more humiliatingly, the piece of damaged stone was given a mock-ceremonial burial. Money collected from the fines contributed to a kind of early benevolent fund. There are indications that the masons were quite hard-nosed businessmen: for example, almost every farm in the area has its own sandstone shrine – no doubt the eighteenth or nineteenth century equivalent of a nice water feature (if that doesn’t sound too profane).
Dating from the nineteenth century onwards are photographs of the boys and men who worked the quarries. They don’t have happy faces: all seem quite solemn and few are smiling, but perhaps this was because it took such a long time to take a group photograph then, perhaps because they were told to look serious. They certainly appear well-dressed and well-fed, though it is curious that their clothes hardly seemed to change in the century between 1850 and 1950.
I wonder what it must have been like to have been born into one of these three villages and – male or female – to know that during your life you would be assured of reasonable prosperity, but also that your future had been mapped out for you from birth.

A significant writer, with flair: M.R. Hall, @MRHall_books

M.R. Hall

I bought The Flight and The Disappeared, by M.R. Hall, from Bookmark in Spalding and took them with me on holiday to read.  I had not heard of the author before, but Christine Hanson, the proprietor of Bookmark, had mounted a display of them in the shop and had also read The Flight, which she said was excellent.  I was certainly prepared to accept her judgment.

To confess the exact truth, I started The Flight, which is the later novel, first, and didn’t much like it.  It deals with an air crash, and the first fifty pages or so reminded me very much of those disaster movies that were so popular in the 1980s, which had a very thin storyline and depended on the histrionics of the disaster itself to maintain interest.  This was compounded by an amazing amount of technical detail that, although I dislike segregating books into ‘men’s reads’ and ‘women’s reads’, struck me as having more of a male than a female appeal.

I therefore put The Flight aside and embarked upon The Disappeared.  Upon picking it up, I thought immediately that it would be much more to my taste. The story is about the disappearance of two Muslim teenagers and how Jenny Cooper, the Severn Vale District Coroner, mounts an investigation into the cause of their deaths (as they have officially been declared dead, but no bodies found) seven years afterwards, at the request of the mother of one of them.  The novel deals with several topical and sensitive issues, including Muslim extremism and the activities, sometimes of dubious legality, of the security services.  All this is riveting, and beautifully written.  What engaged me most of all, however, was the detailed and delicate portrayal of states of mind that can perhaps be described as hyper-sensitive, but by no means indicate madness or irrationality, and how those suffering from them can be persecuted by unscrupulous people trying to serve their own unethical purposes by discounting them or even bringing them into disrepute by suggesting that they are unreliable.  Fine parallels are drawn between Jenny’s own mental state and that of Amira Jamal, the mother of one of the missing youths.  Both need professional help for their mental conditions, yet each is perceptive and intelligent, with an intuitive understanding of the forces that are really at work, despite being disbelieved and ‘rubbished’ by others and, to differing extents, cowed by this.  Yet, in both instances, the reader is left in some lingering doubt about their powers of judgment.  A particularly good example of this occurs when Jenny’s sulky teenage son (with whom a more mentally robust mother would have had a straightforward conversation, setting out a few home truths) enlists the help of her smug ex-husband to move out of her house.  While the son is packing, the husband explains that one of the reasons that the son is going is that Jenny is not fit to look after him, citing the fact that there is never any food in the house.  From what has gone before, the reader knows that this statement, if exaggerated, has on several occasions been true (there are further occasions when the son has selfishly demolished all the food).  It is left to the reader to reflect that a son in his last year at college should not be as helpless as this one appears to be, but it is a manifestation of the author’s considerable talent that Hall demonstrates that there are faults on both sides.  It is from such balanced depiction of human relationships, and how they fray and chafe against each other, that the book gains distinction.  The taut relationship between Jenny Cooper and her ex-policewoman clerk, Alison Trent, is also particularly well-drawn.

So, having enjoyed The Disappeared immensely and devoured it impatiently to the last page, I decided to give The Flight another try.  To any other reader who, like me, finds the first eighth or so of this book daunting, I’d like to say that it’s well worth persevering with.  It’s true that there is a lot of technical detail throughout (and I can only applaud the author’s obvious mastery of it; I’m sure that a huge amount of research must have gone into the crafting of this novel), but the reason for it becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses.  M.R. Hall has constructed an intricate but worryingly believable plot which, even more than in The Disappeared, entrances as it unfolds.  Jenny’s personal story is also developed well in this later work: she is released from some of her demons, but manages to create others in their place; and her dealings with Alison are even more fraught than in its predecessor.

I’m delighted to have discovered M.R. Hall, especially through one of my favourite bookshops, and look forward with impatience to the next Jenny Cooper story.  In the meantime, I believe that there are a couple of others in the series that I have yet to read.  Do I have any reservations at all?  Only one comparatively minor one.  It concerns the character of Jenny herself.  Hall has been much praised for getting inside the head of a woman with such sympathy and understanding.  I’d say that 95% of the time this praise is well-deserved, but sometimes Jenny is just a bit too snivelly and self-pitying for my taste, though she soon snaps out of it.  Hall should perhaps consider that resourceful women who live alone never (in my experience) behave like this.  They know that the knight in shining armour won’t come rushing to their aid and adopt a pragmatic approach accordingly – as Jenny always does, after her odd lapses.  But, as I’ve said, this is a minor personal niggle, and possibly it’s unfair even to mention it.


Profile of an artisan potter


Spherical pot

Spherical pot

Pendant lampshade with a difference!

Pendant lampshade with a difference!

Bird platter

Bird platter

Mobile mirror plate

Mobile mirror plate

Large water feature

Large water feature



Garden bench

Garden bench

I have recently visited Münsterland, the area around the city of Münster in Germany, and, in particular, a triangle of prosperous villages, Havixbeck, Billerbeck and Nottuln, all associated since mediaeval times with sandstone carving, and the latter with a characteristic blue-glazed pottery. Being lovers of individual, hand-crafted products and of clayware, my husband and I tried in vain by car to find a contemporary artisan in the district, as we had seen examples locally; yet it wasn’t until, on a bike ride towards the end of our stay, we happened upon a glass display case fixed to the wall of a Nottuln hotel that we could locate the potter. The case contained some examples of the work, some photographs and, tucked away at the top, some cards with a name and an address, out in a rural hamlet called Stevern.
Good luck happened twice, as, when we found the pottery itself, Monica Stüttgen had only two hours before returned from a holiday in the Black Forest. She showed us into her house and invited us also to look around the garden, both of which are a treasure trove of beautiful examples of her handiwork. The whole of the ground floor of the house is given over to a studio and rooms displaying a remarkable range of artefacts, quite a few of them carrying her trademark, a flying bird with a fanning tail.
Monica says that she regards herself as a craftswoman, rather than an artist (coincidentally, this is also how the many generations of sandstone sculptors also viewed themselves) and feels particularly strongly that her pottery should be used, not just put on display; it is well glazed, using modern processes, and, she adds, will stand both frost and the dishwasher! Though it accords with traditional designs, it plainly reveals much of her individuality and considerable artistry.
I’ve included in this post some photographs of some of her work, from both inside the studio and out in the garden. She obviously draws some of her inspiration from Nottuln, of which she is a native, although she told me that she spent ten years making and selling pottery in France. Like many artisans – indeed many writers – that I have met, her chief problem is obtaining publicity for her work. Once people have seen it, they love it and want to come back for more, but she is struggling to find a wider public; at the moment, she does have an arrangement with the local restaurant, Gasthaus Stevertal, to display examples of her pottery (Stevertal is a fine traditional German restaurant with a menu that features the local cuisine – we ate here twice… and twice missed her display!) and the showcase in Nottuln, but these are not enough.
I found both Monica and her work fascinating and I am full of admiration for what she is trying to achieve. I suggested that she should try to extend her customer base by developing a blog for her website and new contacts via social networking; I also promised to write a blog-post myself as my own, very small, contribution to try to help. So here it is.
We bought a fruit bowl, a fish plate and two eggcups and Monica very generously also gave us a kitchen tidy in one of the traditional Nottuln designs. I’m delighted with them and doubt that I shall be taking any risk on the dishwasher front! As our daughter-in-law also comes from this area, we shall certainly visit the pottery again: there are many other pieces that we should like to buy. For example, we were particularly taken with the ceramic garden labels for herbs.
I feel very strongly that the skills of an artisan should be encouraged and supported, especially one with Monica’s obvious talent. If you happen to visit this area, you won’t be disappointed by an hour or two in her lovely studio and garden.  You may like to know that she is also prepared to send items by post!

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