Easter crept up on me this year, because I spent the greater part of the week leading up to it doing the day job in Barcelona. I was last there in November, when the weather was very similar to how it is now (How I envy the Spanish their short, mild winters!). Long-time readers may remember that I wrote of an earlier visit, in April 2013, when I was lucky enough to be there during the St George’s Day bookshop celebrations, the inspiration for our own World Book Day.
As it happened, there were more opportunities for down time in November and so last week’s distinct lack of them may be compensated by a selection of 2015 photographs of one of the world’s most beautiful and interesting cities. They aren’t in any particular order, but reflect visits to Antoni Gaudí’s inspirational work at Casa Batlló,
and Palau Güell
and to the Fundació Joan Miró.
There are some pictures, too, of places I wandered around and the people and animals I saw as I went. There were cats everywhere: scrawny cats crouching in alleyways, suspicious cats craning their necks from the tiled roofs, a family of sleek, well-fed black and white cats living in a courtyard at the university. Dogs were on and off leash, living happy doggy lives; being an English pointer owner, I was delighted to find a rescued black and white pointer playing on Carmel Hill (Park Güell) with her mum.
Anyway, as I’ve said, this is just a selection, which doesn’t really need much explanation, but I hope you didn’t expect too much in the way of classic views – you can find those in the guide books! Here’s a tourist picture to finish with: woman in Park Güell.
I’ve just had the privilege of reading Dead of Winter, by Gerri Brightwell, the most recent addition to Salt Publishing’s crime list. Gerri Brightwell is an English academic who works in Canada. The novel is set in Alaska and I’m certain it draws on her experiences of Canadian winters for some of its local colour.
The story is told in the third person, but through the eyes of Fisher, the (anti-) hero of Dead of Winter, a divorced taxi driver and born loser who is estranged from his only child, a teenage girl called Bree (short for Breehan); he has a barely-speaking relationship with his former wife Jan, who, years before the story begins, has tired of her drab and grubby life with Fisher, smartened herself up, turned estate agent and met and married the obnoxious but successful Brian. Even the cab company (‘Bear Cabs’) that Fisher works for is second-rate and his life is filled with shifty characters who continually exploit him. Two of these, Fisher’s step-mother Ada and Grisby, his on-off friend, are rare jewels of characterisation. Both introduce black humour into the novel. Ada manages to cheat him and make him feel guilty for not running her errands at the same time. The depiction of Grisby is a compelling addition to the great tradition of literary scroungers: he could happily rub shoulders with Joxer Daly and hold his own. Fisher knows that Grisby takes advantage of him, but he also recognises that the man is pathetically inadequate, even more of a loser than he is himself, and therefore feels unable to abandon him. Grisby, for his part, turns to dross everything that he touches: to call him accident-prone would be a gross understatement. He is motivated by a low cunning that attempts to be devious but doesn’t fool Fisher. The only solid-gold creature in Fisher’s life is Pax the dog, and he is growing old and incontinent.
It is because of the actions of Breehan, Jan and Brian and Grisby and Ada that Fisher not only stumbles upon the aftermath of a murder, but is in danger of being wrongly accused as the killer. To protect his estranged family, he enlists Grisby’s aid to remove the corpse from the crime scene. From this point, event piles on event to immerse Fisher ever deeper in lies and apparent guilt, a vicious circle from which he cannot break free because of his love for Bree and Jan.
The tense and fast-moving action is played out over a period of a few days. The setting is a small Alaskan town in the grip of a vicious winter. The winter itself becomes one of the villains of the novel, alternately endangering and thwarting Fisher as he pursues his desperate mission. Fisher himself is by turns philosophical, funny, annoyed and depressed. His is a complex character: he charms the reader, despite his shabby frowsiness, lack of self-respect and fatalistic approach to how his life has turned out, because fundamentally he is honest, showing an integrity that no-one else in the novel can match.
The plot of Dead of Winter is ingenious: I thoroughly recommend this novel if what you’re looking for is a page-turner. What appeals to me even more is Gerri Brightwell’s clear prose and the deftly-observed characters that she creates. If you decide to read it, you won’t be disappointed.
Last week I went to Seattle (on business, though it was very pleasurable) and my husband headed for Lancashire to help Priscilla and Rupert with this year’s crop of lambs, courtesy of Terence the Tup. My one regret was that I had to miss the lambs: Terence has performed particularly spectacularly this time: three of his six ladies have produced two sets of triplets and a set of quads (this, apparently, a one-in-ten-thousand eventuality). There are now thirteen lambs and still counting!
However, Seattle was wonderful. Geographically, it’s unique: an isthmus almost surrounded by sea, lake and tidal rivers. This, the proximity of mountains and the Pacific Ocean serve to make the climate fretful: although it’s mild, each day, I found, brings a series of sunshine and showers, the latter often lasting only a few minutes, but fierce until they peter out. The product: beautiful skyscapes, cloud dotted with mini rainbows to create a sort of celestial rocky road.
Sunday was my only free day. Following the advice of almost everyone, from business acquaintances to the man who sat next to me on the plane to various taxi drivers, I chose to spend most of it at Pike Market.
Built in 1907, this was originally called the ‘hygienic’ market, because horses (and therefore their droppings) were banned. Architecturally, it hasn’t changed much since then. It is a warren of twisting corridors, some ending unexpectedly with huge plate glass windows that provide viewing areas across the water.
The fresh fish stands grab the visitor’s attention first: they’re dramatic, piled high with lobsters, deep sea creatures such as octopi, and the sockeye salmon for which the region is famous.
Further into the market, there are many stalls selling what look like perfect fruit and vegetables and others with more exotic foods such as buffalo. There are vendors of local wines, honey and flowers and also quite a few ‘ordinary’ shops – I discovered a couple of booksellers – and, finally, the craft stalls. The artisanal goods were of exceptional quality, as the pictures illustrate (I bought some presents at these, so won’t describe them in detail).
All the shopkeepers and stall holders were friendly, giving me and other prospective customers the history of how they came to be there, what their goods were made of, how they made them, and, if they were comestibles, providing samples.
I spent most of the day in the market, but I did manage to see a little of the rest of Seattle, too, particularly the student area where my hotel was situated. I was very impressed with the university bookshop, which was sprawling and well-stocked with titles that catered for the local residents as well as students. It also had some very helpful and knowledgeable assistants. Indeed, all of the three bookshops I visited – the two in the market, one bijou, the other quirky, and the university one, which was on a different scale – were independents. Tom Hanks may have put Meg Ryan out of business with his juggernaut bookselling chain, but clearly some independent bookshops still flourish in Seattle!
On a darker note, I was saddened to see the evidence of drug addiction on Seattle’s streets. There was a young man in a filthy sleeping bag lying in one doorway of the large American Apparel shop near the university; another addict, obviously still high, accosted me and my colleagues to ask for a dollar when we left a restaurant on Monday evening. I read in the local paper that there are twice as many people being treated for heroin addiction as alcoholism in Seattle. No different from what can be seen in Britain’s big cities, particularly London, I suppose; what was different was that local people seemed to tolerate it much more. The American Apparel shop assistants, for example, did not try to move on the man in the sleeping bag.
Although Seattle is a wealthy city, deriving much of its prosperity from trade with Asia, I also saw evidence of poverty. The post office in the student quarter is a drab and cavernous building, and was staffed only by two exhausted-looking clerks, one male, one female, when I visited to buy stamps. Despite being overworked, they were both gentle and patient with their clients, none of whom appeared to be students and all of very modest means. The man spent a long time helping an old lady to send a parcel; the woman was explaining how to fill in a form to a middle-aged man who had learning difficulties. It struck me that they were serving the community in much the same way that public librarians do in the UK. They were kind – and I saw (and experienced) a great deal of kindness in Seattle.
I’ve given some impressions of Seattle: I’ve no idea what Seattle thought of me. In the market, I think I was probably a bit of a curiosity: several stall holders asked me where I came from. I told a man selling shopping bags, who was so deeply engrossed in a science fiction novel that I had to ask him three times to serve me, that I was a crime writer; he said that was cool, and asked me to sign his SF book, which I duly did, although of course having no right to do so! At the airport when I arrived, the immigration official, who was rather too chatty for me after a fifteen-hour journey, said “Gee, you sound really well-educated!” “Not really,” I answered. “It’s the accent. I’m just British.”
I left Seattle after a visit of only four days, determined to return and spend more time there. Then it was home to more work, bitterly cold winds and some equally exotic tales of sheep!