Landscape and the seasons

Where are you going?

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Arriving in Lincoln on the morning of Saturday 14th April 2018, with a couple of hours to spare before the crime writers’ workshop I was leading at the Central Library, I decided to explore a part of the city I hadn’t really looked at closely before – the waterfront at Brayford Pool. I particularly wanted to see the Lincoln end of the Roman-constructed Fossdyke (probably the UK’s oldest canal still in use), which links the city to the River Trent at Torksey. Thus, a navigable waterway stretched, via Lincoln, from the Trent to the Wash, for the Brayford Pool is a natural lake on the River Witham, which flows to Boston and the North Sea.  In the middle ages, the Pool was a thriving inland port, but it declined subsequently until Daniel Defoe in 1720 called Lincoln ‘an old, dying, decay’d dirty city… it is scarce tolerable to call a city…’ Twenty years later, one Richard Ellison was granted a long lease on the Fossdyke (he grew wealthy from the tolls he charged on it) and the Pool sprang into life again. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the land around it turned over to bustling wharves and mighty warehouses for grain and cloth, together with all the attendant trades of a waterway. Great sailing barges carried produce and imported goods to the growing industrial cities of the Midlands and the North; steam packet boats eventually appeared on the Witham. However, the railways and then motor transport superseded the boats and, by the 1960s, as I can just remember, the Pool was an ugly graveyard of abandoned shipping.

What I found this weekend, however, was a revitalised marina for leisure and pleasure craft and contemporary working vessels – narrowboats, sleek modern motor yachts, canoes and water-taxis – in a sympathetically-modernised harbour, with Lincoln University on one side of it and bars, restaurants and cafés on the other. Thankfully, plans for filling in the Pool and turning it into a carpark were not carried out and the Brayford Trust began clearing the site. There are unsurpassed views of the Cathedral and Lincoln Castle and the old city from the University side. It surprises me that places like this, which I’ve explored by land and water – the centres of Leeds and Birmingham, for example – have only recently been revitalised, their potential for public relaxation and enjoyment, for entertainment, heritage preservation and wildlife only slowly realised.

Walk with me and enjoy this lovely part of Lincoln. Let’s start with ‘The Glory Hole’, the size limit to shipping from the River Witham into the Brayford Pool. This is High Bridge (1160 AD), the oldest UK bridge with buildings on it.

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The Brayford Pool, with Lincoln University buildings across the water

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Preen scene

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Old and new

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Rail and water, now in harmony

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Elderly resident

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View from the Pool

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The Fossdyke

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Brayford Pool from the Fossdyke

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A glance up the hill

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University

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“Just for a stroll around the Pool…”

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And now, back to the Glory Hole

Thank you for strolling with me!

Energy and spice: in Delhi

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I visited India for the first time in November.  I was there for only three days, so it would be presumptuous of me to claim that I’ve even begun to scratch the surface of this amazing, complex country that shimmers with great beauty and at the same time seethes with contradictions. I suspect that even if I had lived there for many years I would not fully understand the cultural, social and historical accretions that have made India and Indians what they are today.

All I can offer, therefore, is a diffident account of what I was able to see in a few very brief hours.  My visit was confined to Delhi: I spent my first two days there working, so my taste of the ‘real’ India (as opposed to the cosmopolitan experience that is pretty much the same across the world for all guests staying at business hotels) was almost entirely crammed into a single day.  I was fortunate in having as my guide an Indian colleague based in Delhi who not only spoke several languages but understood how to deal with the myriads of rickshaw drivers and sellers of goods of all kinds who continually accost those walking through the streets.  It’s no exaggeration to say that I felt protected by being accompanied by one who knew their ways, but it would be wrong to suggest that I was frightened: despite the horror stories we read in the British press of attacks and muggings, it was my impression that what these people most wanted was the opportunity to earn an honest living.  The problem was that there were so many of them it was difficult to know which way to turn.  The only word that serves to describe a walk through an Indian street – or market – is ‘overwhelming’.

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Indians from all walks of life emit enormous energy: they’re constantly moving, they speak fast and all of the time they’re taking in their surroundings – no mean feat, as these are perpetually shifting, too.  Even the most modestly-situated street sellers demonstrate an optimism, an upbeatness, which inspires admiration rather than sympathy.  They seem determined to conquer life’s adversities by being cheerful and, above all, persistent.  This is even true of the small children clutching bundles of pens which they press passers-by to purchase for a few rupees each.  It’s heart-wrenchingly sad that these children clearly don’t go to school, that they’re grubby and often without shoes and that they’re out in the streets both early and late.  Some undoubtedly sleep in the open.  Yet they don’t seem deflated: on the contrary, they possess a resilience which convinces that at some level they will succeed.

The first stop on my itinerary was the Red Fort.

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This is a seventeenth century fortification set on a hill and now famous for being the first place at which the flag of India was hoisted after the country gained independence in 1947.  The fort fronts a whole series of royal palaces

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and ornate gardens, the latter containing trees of great age whose time-thickened trunks are gnarled and twisted with creeper.   The gardens are home to some of the stray dogs that roam the streets and public places everywhere in Delhi (though they don’t seem to work in packs, like the ones I saw in Quito, and therefore don’t intimidate).

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The dogs beg shamelessly from picnickers, but most Indians have no compunction about roundly shooing them away.  People are kinder to the chipmunks that also abound,

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perhaps because they’re ‘cute’, whereas the dogs are skinny and bedraggled.  The roofs of the palace buildings are thick with pigeons, while above them circle ‘eagles’ – as Indians often call the black kites which can be seen across the whole city.

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Inside, the palaces contain so many glass cases filled with artefacts that it’s difficult to take them all in.  I found the fine silk and damask nineteenth-century garments particularly striking, especially the tunic and trousers that had belonged to a princess described as being a rare beauty.  (These clothes would have drowned Queen Victoria herself!)  There were many weapons, some of them primitive and barbaric, though none that would have killed as efficiently as the Gatling gun, a British-supplied relic from India’s contribution to the First World War.  One of the palaces housed ancient manuscripts, the calligraphy exquisite and perfect.

A visit to the spice market followed, a noisy place teeming with humanity.  It contains row upon row of stalls piled high with spices, nuts and teas,

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some facing the main thoroughfare, others hidden away in tunnel-like passages.  We tried to penetrate one of these and were quickly driven back on to the street, eyes and noses stinging and streaming from the overpowering impact of the spices.  I bought a kilo of green tea (a kilo of tea’s a lot, I realised belatedly!), a classic Delhi curry mix, the spices still whole, and half a kilo of unground turmeric.

The street food looks and smells wonderful: chapatis containing all kinds of meat and vegetable fillings, sliced melon and coconut, flavoured naans and chicken prepared as numerous varieties of finger food – but so many seasoned European travellers had warned me not to be tempted that I didn’t succumb.  Residents of Delhi are evidently immune to ‘Delhi belly’, but our digestive tracts haven’t benefited from the same training.  Lunch was at the Connaught Gardens, quite a famous spot which is run like a gentleman’s club.  The food was classic – much of it vegetarian – and delicious.

Having realised from my experiences in the spice market that I am quite incapable of bartering, I was relieved to be taken to one of the government-approved shops that sells high-quality goods at fixed fair prices.  I bought a few things there before going on to another street market.

By this time, it was almost dark.  The market was beginning to fill up with people leaving work.  Some street acts appeared: musicians and conjurors.  Suddenly tired, we decided to round off the day by visiting the Indian monument.  There are, in fact, two of these, one a traditional-looking building that has been conceived as a beautifully-sculpted gazebo, the other a large square triumphal arch, akin to both Marble Arch and the Arc de Triomphe, which commemorates by name every Indian soldier killed in the India-Pakistan war.  As the darkness descended, the floodlights came on and both structures were suffused with an eerie beauty: a fitting end to my excursion into Delhi.

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Warm in Walkers Bookshop

 

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Walkers, Stamford

Saturday 4th November was a wild, wet day.  The rain came bouncing down on the A1 as I headed for Walkers Bookshop in Stamford to sign copies of Fair of Face.  In places, the water stood inches deep on the road.  The lorries tossed out spray which severely restricted visibility.  A Reliant Robin three-wheeler (I hadn’t seen one for years!) went bombing along at 70 mph and almost aquaplaned.

It was a relief to reach Stamford, always a haven of civilisation and peace, and, even better, to arrive in time to indulge in a cappuccino and a huge, home-made cookie at The George Hotel, before going ‘on duty’ at Walkers.

I received a wonderfully warm welcome from the staff at Walkers, as I always do – and, as always, I appreciated it: I know how busy bookshop staff are, especially on Saturdays, and I’m very grateful when they spare time to look after me in addition to everything else they have to do.

The rain didn’t deter Walkers’ customers from venturing out from home.  They continued to show up steadily throughout the three hours I was there, some very windswept, some clutching wet umbrellas, all dressed in sturdy waterproofs, boots and hats.

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It certainly felt as if winter had suddenly taken Stamford by storm, but with it came a sense of excitement, a feeling that there was celebration in the air.  I suppose this may have been because it was one of the first weekends when people really start to think about Christmas shopping, but well before they begin to feel jaded and harassed by the whole prospect of coping with the ‘festive season’.

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I’ve always enjoyed visiting Walkers – this was the fourth signing session I’ve been offered there – and yesterday was no exception.  Many of the shop’s customers stopped to talk to me, and most of these bought one of my books – I was delighted to find that In the Family, Almost Love and Rooted in Dishonour were in demand, as well as Fair of Face.  Most people wanted them for Christmas presents, but others supplied different reasons: one lady was intrigued by Fair of Face because she knows Spalding well, having grown up in Gosberton Clough (a place I have yet to feature in the novels, so she’s now given me the idea!); another wanted Almost Love for her husband to read on his frequent journeys to London;

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another was bought by an author of Young Adult books who told me that she’d given a signing session in Walkers herself and was strongly in favour of supporting local authors.  She said that her reading group might be interested in hearing me speak.  If she reads this post, I’d like to thank her for a fascinating conversation and to say again that I’d be delighted to speak to the members of the reading group if indeed they’d like to hear me.

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I’m never bored in bookshops: it’s a great privilege to be allowed to sit in one for several hours and just drink in the atmosphere.  My time at Walkers was over only too quickly, but I took away some very pleasant memories that I know will stay with me.

I’d like to offer heartfelt thanks to Jenny Pugh, of Walkers Bookshop, Stamford, for making the signing session possible, and also to thank all of the staff there, particularly those who were working on the top floor, for their kindness and generous hospitality.

Bookmark, marking a moment for Fair of Face

Window on the world of Bookmark

Last Monday dawned squally.  As I drove to Spalding for the first signing session of Fair of Face, the leaves were being snatched from the trees, victims of whatever the latest Atlantic storm was called (I’ve lost track!).  As I approached Spalding, the rain arrived. (Lovers of pathetic fallacy, take note!)  However, once inside Bookmark, I was safe, as I knew I would be, enveloped by its usual high standard of hospitality, warmth and the provision of many interesting people to talk to.

Last year, when Rooted in Dishonour was launched – the staff at Bookmark have, magnificently, given me events for all my novels – the café was closed for refurbishment.  This year, I was delighted to find it open, with an enticing range of treats to choose from.  My husband, never behind the door when it comes to food, indulged in a farmer’s breakfast and, a few hours later, a massive slice of coffee and walnut cake. I confined myself to a cheese and tomato toastie (not as modest as it sounds: Spalding helpings are generous!).

I was there until 3 p.m., signing copies of Fair of Face.  Several old friends, readers I have met since In the Family was published in 2012, came in to see me.  I met new readers, too, some of whom wanted to buy all the DI Yates titles, starting with the first – though I made it clear to them, as I do to all new readers, that each novel is a standalone. As I’ve said before, I think it’s cheating to expect readers to have to read all the previous titles in order to make sense of the latest one.

On Tuesday, a radio programme followed the Bookmark signing session: Carla Green interviewed me on Radio Lincolnshire at lunchtime, asking some particularly searching questions about Fair of Face, and generously promoted the events at Spalding and Stamford (see below).

I was back in Bookmark on Thursday evening to give a talk and two readings to members of Bookmark’s reading group and some of its other customers, too.  An author’s dream audience, they were extremely lively and engaged and, if any of them is reading this post: Thank you very much indeed for a magnificent evening – you were brilliant in your response!  And huge thanks to Sam Buckley, Sarah Halgarth and all the rest of the staff at Bookmark for welcoming me again and working so hard to make great successes of both occasions there.

This coming week the wonderful Chris Hamilton-Emery, founder of Salt Publishing and the equally wonderful Emma Dowson, Salt’s PR Manager, have organised a blog tour for Fair of Face. Here’s the tour and I hope to ‘meet’ some of you there.  I’d like to thank all the bloggers who have so generously contributed their time and their oxygen to this.

There are several other events in the pipeline:

  • 4th November.  Signing session. Walkers Bookshop, Stamford.
  • 18th November.  Readings and workshop {‘Fair of Face but dark at heart’), Wakefield One.
  • Date tbc, February 2018.  Readings and workshop, Lincoln City Library.
  • 17th February 2018.  Readings and workshop, Spalding Library.
  • Dates tbc: Readings and workshop, University of Winchester

Review in Lincolnshire Life

There will be other events and reviews, too, which I’ll announce here when I have more details.  If anyone reading this is organising an event to which I could contribute, I should be very happy to hear from you.

Last but certainly not least, if you have bought Fair of Face, I should like to offer you my sincerest thanks: authors are not authors without readers and I want you to know that I feel greatly honoured knowing you have spent several hours of your precious time reading my book. I do hope that you enjoy it.

Charleston, South Carolina… a topsy-turvy town

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Next stop for me after Quito was Charleston, in South Carolina, home of North America’s most prestigious conference for academic librarians.  You often hear that places are ‘steeped in history’ – a cliché that must apply to at least 80% of UK towns and cities – but I’ve seldom visited anywhere as overtly gripped by the past as Charleston is.  Named for Charles II (it was originally called ‘Charles Town’ until contracted to its present form after the American War of Independence), it has a colourful past, reminders of which include a cross-vaulted underground prison for smugglers

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and numerous old colonial and pre- and immediate post-Civil War buildings.  In the classical style and painted white, often with pillars or cupolas, they seem to epitomise old-world grace and the elegance of a more leisurely age.

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When I was there, many of the houses were decorated for Hallowe’en, some in very imaginative ways:

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my favourite was the giant witch’s hat set atop a cupola.

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Charleston stands for a great many things that are hard to swallow.  That gracious leisure – for the few – cost thousands their freedom.  South Carolina was one of the first states to secede from the Union because it supported slavery.  It still has a considerable black population, many of whom, if not part of an underclass, are clearly not rich; there’s a stark contrast between them and the owners of the sparkling white yachts and cabin cruisers that loll in the harbour

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or go for little spins offshore.

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As a British visitor, this blatant juxtaposition of wealth and modest means made me uneasy; yet, at the same time, it’s hard not to be beguiled by Charleston, where the sun shines warmly in November and the inhabitants treat strangers with impeccable courtesy and charm.

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I asked a lady watering the plants in her garden the way back to my hotel and with alacrity she got out her car and drove me there; the staff in the hotel were unfailingly polite and solicitous, especially during my first forty-eight hours as their guest, after I’d turned up plagued with a Latin-American stomach bug.

Nowhere was the tension between old-fashioned courtesy and dyed-in-the-wool conservatism more apparent than during my visit to the Confederate Museum, which is situated right in the heart of Charleston, at one end of the historic covered market.

ch-2It’s run by a group that calls itself ‘The United Daughters of the Confederacy’.  When I entered, two of these rather ancient ‘daughters’ were sitting at a table near the main door, collecting the modest entrance fee and looking as if they might indeed have stepped out of the 1840s (the building that houses the Museum was constructed, as the leaflet shows, in 1841).  The ladies were gently polite and directed me to some of the things they (correctly) thought might interest me most, including children’s clothes made of old Confederate flags and letters home written by achingly young Confederate soldiers.  They had one male companion, an elderly man whose sole task it was to tell visitors the story of the large cannon that occupied the centre of the room.  Apparently, it was the first cannon ever to be used in America, and – of especial interest to me – manufactured from the particularly robust iron ore quarried at Low Moor, near Bradford.  I told the old man that I lived in Yorkshire, not twenty miles from Low Moor; he said, to his knowledge, he’d had only one other visitor from Yorkshire and that I was very welcome.  I told him I was a writer and begged for permission to photograph the cannon for my blog.  Immediately, his attitude changed.  He frowned and stabbed his finger at a large notice erected on an easel next to the cannon.  “No photographs in here, Ma’am.”

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I’ve mentioned the market, which is one of Charleston’s many crown jewels and the place that Americans always recommend to sightseers if they ask.  It’s a fascinating place: a craft market with a few farmers’ market-style stalls thrown in.  The stallholders sell many beautiful things, so I was spoilt for choice: eventually I settled on a South Carolina Beadwork necklace for my friend, a Charleston collapsible fruit bowl for my husband and a topsy-turvy rag doll for my granddaughter.

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There’s some disagreement about the origin and purpose of these dolls – I was told that they were made for black children who were forbidden to own a white doll and one of these could be quickly turned upside down if an overseer came by, but perhaps the alternative view of their play purpose is more compelling, that African-American women were preparing their own children for the life they themselves experienced, as carers of white children during the day and their own children at night. I’m sure that other theories exist, but during this Black History Month I’ll take the opportunity to say that, for me, the doll is a fine emblem of an ideal of racial equality and mutual respect that sadly isn’t much evident in the world today.

Top of the tree among the stallholders are the black families (usually but not always headed up by a woman) who make the traditional sweetgrass baskets.

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sweetgrass-basket

My charming sweetgrass lady, with a couple of Christmas decorations

My charming sweetgrass lady, with a couple of Christmas decorations

These are intricate and very beautiful – they’re expensive but take a long time to make – and crafted from a design that originated in Africa.  The method for making them crossed the Atlantic with those captured for slavery.  Apparently only about fifty people understand the technique today – it’s been passed down from mother to daughter over the decades and centuries.  Another kind of Charleston elegance – and an enduring heritage.

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Journey to ‘the middle of the world’

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I’d never been to Latin America when I touched down in Quito and knew very little about Ecuador.  Wikipedia had told me that Ecuador was a former Spanish colony, that the first language was Spanish and that temperatures while I was there would be around 19 degrees (which turned out to be a considerable underestimate: it was hot!).  Otherwise, virtually zilch.  I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never taken much interest in the South American continent; I’m resolved to change that now.

I was wowed by the spectacular assault on my senses which began as soon as I could see Quito from the plane.  It’s the world’s highest capital city and ringed by magnificent mountains, some of them volcanic.  And, of course, it’s right on the Equator.

Sculpture on the 'middle of the world'

Sculpture on the ‘middle of the world’

As the plane drew nearer to the earth, I could see Quito’s imposing array of churches and some of the colourful, flat-roofed dwellings that are home to most of its citizens.  (I was to discover that only the old colonial houses have pitched roofs.)

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The forty-minute taxi ride to my hotel revealed more of these houses, some clinging precariously to steep hillsides with deep ravines below them, and many incomplete, as if funds had suddenly dried up.  Because there are few high-rise developments, huge areas are covered by these modest residential districts.  Quito has a population of about two million, but its large number of very small buildings makes it seem more populous than it is.

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There isn’t much undergrowth, but there are many shrubs and trees, including the fabulously tall araucarias.  Most bushes and shrubs are in flower in late October, in vibrant, clashing shades of orange, purple and cerise, and are often sweet-smelling.

I asked my taxi driver what the main industries of Ecuador are and was told chemicals, including petroleum, and agriculture, especially the cultivation of flowers for export.  I’m sure that there are wealthy Ecuadorians, but most of the people seem to be either poor or, at best, of slender means.  Many of them make their living by selling things – I quickly realised there is a strict retail hierarchy.  The poorest sellers are peripatetic: they roam the streets with a very small selection of low-cost goods – sweets, water, small toys – and accost people as they pass.  Some of them are also beggars, who will offer you a sweet in return for alms; often they are women carrying small children.  Then there are street sellers with fixed spots on the pavements.  Either they lay out cloths or little folding tables exhibiting their wares, or they have small portable stalls.

Ice cream?

Ice cream?

They peddle cheap souvenirs and a wide variety of foods, especially the glistening heaps of stuff that looks like ice cream but, as I discovered, is really a kind of panna cotta, and cups filled with small pearl-like balls of coloured ice, which I guess are made of frozen fruit juice.  Exotic drinks are also on sale.  I sampled one of these, a pungent, bittersweet beverage made from green tea, cinnamon and warmed fruit juice.  Apparently, it is served at funerals, with cheap cookies so that people don’t ask for too many refills!

One up again from the street sellers are the market traders.  Most operate from relatively small, covered markets; Quito contains dozens of these.  Most sell textiles, silver jewellery, upmarket groceries (especially local coffees and chocolates) and fancy goods, the latter often too gaudy for northern European tastes.

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Carnival masks are a particular speciality of artisan craftsmen, and I found them both more appealing and more beautifully made than the ornate mirrors, leather-clad shots glasses, miniature shrines and fake shrunken heads which were also on sale.  It’s possible to haggle with the market traders and I found this less of a problem than the fact that they never let anyone  browse undisturbed.  Immediately you show an interest in something, they emerge from the depths of the stall to describe with great enthusiasm and speed (and in Spanish!) the many virtues of whatever it may be.  I found this approach overwhelming and usually just moved on.

Shops are at the top of the hierarchy.  Usually they are grouped in small parades or two- or three- storey malls.

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The goods they sell are generally of good quality and the shopkeepers themselves more discreet.  They won’t barter: the prices are marked clearly on what is for sale and they won’t budge; but often they charge only a few dollars more for a product far superior to what can be purchased in the market. The textiles, in particular, are made of fine wools and silks tender to the touch.   I imagine that many shopkeepers start off as street sellers and work their way up: this would explain the immense pride they take in their establishments and the impeccable displays they create.

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I’ve said that, from the word go, Quito made a pleasurable assault on my senses, but there was one exception: as a dog-owner with a very British love of animals, it saddened me to see the packs of abandoned dogs roaming the streets almost everywhere, even in the more affluent districts.  At first they look intimidating, especially when gathered in groups of up to ten, but I was assured by locals that they are never aggressive and don’t pose a danger to sightseers and other pedestrians.  To be fair, they don’t seem to be malnourished, mainly because both sellers and consumers of street food frequently take pity on them.  Cooked street food isn’t really my thing: I’m too prone to stomach ailments to be able to risk it; but I think even the most ardent dog-lover must find it difficult to enjoy a piping hot delicacy straight off the brazier when eating it involves having his or her every move tracked by a semi-circle of drooling, envious canines.

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Criss-crossing Lincolnshire with DI Yates…

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Walkers, Stamford

Walkers, Stamford

Last Saturday, as last year and the year before, I once again enjoyed a warm welcome in Stamford’s Walkers Bookshop, which hosted a signing session for the publication of the new DI Yates.

In spite of the cold (snow had arrived the previous day in the Pennines), Christmas was in the air and the shop looked very handsome, newly kitted out with its festive stock.  I enjoyed talking to customers as they came and went. I was particularly grateful to Anne’s daughter (who sent her husband back to the shop to buy the book, having herself first gone home to check that her mother didn’t have it), to the lady who bought a copy for her friend ‘Brig’ and with whom I had a fascinating conversation, to Brian, Vetta and Liam, a British/Scandinavian family, who took a huge amount of interest in all the books and how I’d come to write them and to the man who, after a great deal of deliberation, decided that he’d rather have Sausage Hall.  Several people wanted to buy the earlier DI Yates novels. I was very sorry to have missed ‘the man from Gainsborough’, who’d visited the shop about half an hour before I arrived and bought all the novels, but couldn’t wait long enough to have them signed – I do hope that you will read this blog post and, even more, enjoy the books!

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I’d like to extend special thanks to Jenny Pugh and Tim Walker, who invited me to the signing, and Lynne, Linda and Sophie, who looked after me so well on Saturday.  I hope to look forward to meeting you and some of your wonderful customers again next year.

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