09 +00002017-02-11T18:57:43+00:0028 2012 § 9 Comments
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
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.
When I was there, many of the houses were decorated for Hallowe’en, some in very imaginative ways:
my favourite was the giant witch’s hat set atop a cupola.
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
or go for little spins offshore.
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.
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.
It’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.”
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.
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.
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.
09 +00002017-01-30T12:36:14+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
09 +00002016-11-21T20:21:14+00:0030 2012 § 2 Comments
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!
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.
09 +00002016-05-09T18:10:56+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
Ann Arbor is in Michigan, not so very far from Detroit, and currently at about the same point of spring as the Pennines of Yorkshire, with daffodils just beginning to decline from their best, the arrival of swallows and the fresh green of young leaves in sheltered places; a good deal of grass cutting was going on when we were there. The city is home to the main campus of Michigan University and the whole place was filled with graduating students, accompanied for some of the time by, it seemed, more than one generation of family supporters; a good deal of photography was also going on.
When I travelled with Christina to Amsterdam, you may recall that I provided a range of photographs to capture the spirit of that lovely city; she asked me to wander around Ann Arbor and take some pictures to add to the ones she took when she was last there, for she would not, this time, have the leisure to do so herself. (As you can tell, she has also asked me to do a blog post, as she is still very busy!) I didn’t take pictures of the grass cutting, but allowed myself one graduation moment. The rest of the pictures have no particular significance, but US readers of this blog may forgive my including things which to a Brit are strikingly different from back home. The school buses, for example, are perhaps as iconic to us in the UK as London red Routemaster double-decker buses are to the rest of the world (there seemed to be an awful lot of school buses in Ann Arbor, but I then discovered that their depot was just around the corner from our hotel!). Most people appeared to take taxis or drive themselves around town and there were very few pedestrians outside the downtown area; the campus itself, of course, was full of walkers, bikers, monocyclists and skateboarders. Nobody in the hotel could tell me where to catch a bus, but I hopped on and off a few to give my legs a rest (I’m still recuperating after surgery earlier this year.). The houses were largely clapboard homes, the more modern of them part brick, and, apart from the student-rental homes (typically dilapidated and with piles of garbage on porch and in garden!) were immaculately tended, as were their gardens. Blossom time had arrived to set them off nicely!
One real surprise was that not much has been made of the beautiful River Huron, though I understand that there are places for kayaking now. I had to ask several people before I could find one who knew how to get down to the river; he seemed genuinely astonished that I wanted to go. Another place that I visited was Aunt Agatha’s Raven Award-winning (2014) crime bookshop, which Christina had heard about from one of the regular commenters on this blog, who I think lives not far out of town; she therefore asked me to go and browse, which I duly did, meeting Marty, the knowledgeable and long-serving bookseller there. He didn’t really want his picture taken, but, what the hell! I’m not surprised that the shop has such a reputation – its stock of used and new crime books is extensive. Sadly, I didn’t get to meet the owners, who were out of town. I enjoyed a Notting Hill moment there, by the way, as Marty, in the role of Hugh Grant, dealt with someone who wasn’t grasping too well (in spite of the window image below) that it was a crime and mystery store!
I enjoyed the wildlife, the most ubiquitous of which were American robins (not at all related to the English robin, but more thrush/blackbird in behaviour), the reddish-grey squirrels and Canada geese. In the shrubbery next to the flyover of Eisenhower Parkway, I was pleased to get a close personal view of the quite common northern cardinal, but he flew before I had chance to get the camera out.
I hope that you enjoy the pictures! The little boy in me loved the trucks!
09 +00002016-04-28T14:18:03+00:0030 2012 § 4 Comments
I’ve admired Sue Gee for a long time and was a fan of her work long before she became a Salt author. When I received my copy of Trio, her latest novel, I therefore knew I was in for a treat, though even I could not have predicted how magnificent a treat it would be!
Trio covers the lives of three generations, but asymmetrically. Its central characters are Steven Coulter and Margot, his second wife, whom he meets and falls in love with eighteen months after his first wife, Margaret, has died of tuberculosis. The Steven / Margaret / Margot story is set mainly in the latter half of the 1930s, when the Second World War is looming and the Spanish Civil War has already begun, but it isn’t one of the myriad novels whose subject is primarily how the war and its aftermath affected ordinary lives: there is a little of that, but mainly in the context of how engaging in warfare may be a choice, a buffer used by one of those ordinary lives against personal distress. The childhood and young adulthood of the middle generation, that of Steven and Margot’s children, is not described directly: the final part of the novel is devoted to Steven’s son’s first lonely Christmas after his wife’s death, and his feelings for his sister, children and grandchildren. This is set more or less in the present.
The real subjects of Trio are love, sex, grief and death: huge, primeval topics, and ones which most authors struggle to write about convincingly, let alone eloquently. ‘Bad’ sex scenes in fiction are, of course, notorious and even otherwise very accomplished authors are sometimes guilty of inadvertently creating scenes that are memorable only for their risibility. But Gee is more than equal to this task: the love scenes between both Steven and Margaret and Steven and Margot are tender and moving. Gee really comes into her own, however, when she is conveying grief: the sharpness of Steven’s terrible, raw young man’s grief when Margaret dies; the more muted, sad and resigned sorrow of Geoffrey Coulter, Steven’s son, when he is widowed as an old man.
Threading its way through each of the big themes of the novel, music is an ever-present force. On one level, the trio referred to in the title are Margot and the other two musicians with whom she regularly plays in concerts and recitals. Gee’s accounts of music and the effect that it has on its listeners are magnificent: Steven comes from a totally non-musical family, and his awakening upon listening to the trio to the power and pleasures of music are masterfully evoked. In Gee’s hands, music promotes love, awakens desire, assuages grief and dignifies death – even a shocking and violent death. Music sustains Geoffrey in his sadness, and he is proud that his granddaughter, Evie, also shows signs of musical talent.
I could write more about Trio, but I’m aware of the dangers of slipping into ‘spoiler’ territory. One last observation: I’m too young to remember the 1930s or the 1940s, but I’m sure that Gee’s portrayal of them is as authentic as I know her depiction of the present to be. And I love her evocation of the Northumberland landscape, which acts as both a beautiful and a terrible presence in this novel.
09 +00002016-03-28T16:02:00+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
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.
09 +00002016-01-17T21:00:56+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
Last week, the day job took me to Seoul, the capital of South Korea. I didn’t have very much time to explore this city, as, for family reasons, I had to cut my visit as short as possible. These impressions are therefore based on two walks that I made within about a one-mile radius from my hotel, my visit to the (amazing) library at Seoul National University, several evening trips to restaurants and what I could see from two one-hour taxi rides.
Seoul is a massive, sprawling city set within a giant curve of the Han River. If you land at Incheon Airport, the city appears to be ahead to the east and to your left. Gradually, the road sweeps round until you hit the city centre quite suddenly. There is a lot of traffic, with bottlenecks and impatient queues clogging the arterial roads at either end of the day.
The city centre had a slightly odd look when I was there, because many shops and hotels had removed only some of their Christmas decorations. Many still sported Christmas trees (the ones at my hotel were adorned with little placards announcing ‘Danger of Electric Shock’). I’ve no idea why Christmas disappears from Seoul in stages in this way; my Asian colleagues were equally baffled.
Although there are many cars, the streets teem with pedestrians. On the Sunday afternoon, many young people, in particular, were out walking, muffled against the cold (it varied from -1 to -10 degrees) in thick padded clothes. What immediately struck me as a Western observer was how the young women continually try to please their male partners, laughing up into their faces when the latter make jokes and hanging on to their arms as if unable to support themselves. To me, it seemed as if there was something formal, almost ritualistic, about this behaviour. It didn’t appear to be spontaneous.
The crowds on weekdays are quite different. They stream purposefully along the pavements, obviously on their way to work. The main streets are broad, often with traffic islands in the middle. ‘Jay walking’ is strictly not allowed: there are notices banning it. Just a few yards down from my hotel, a policeman with a whistle was stationed near a spot where the pavement narrowed each morning. He blew his whistle and waved a kind of luminous wand (reminiscent of a battery-powered Darth Vader light sabre that my son owned as a child) if anyone stepped off it in an attempt to circumnavigate the throng. In the evening, you see the people surging forth again, sometimes stopping at one of the many street food stands that occupy the lanes and alleys branching off from the main thoroughfares. Some of these alleys and passageways are decorated with murals that celebrate Korea’s ancient past.
Food seems to be the national passion. In the network of streets and alleys that I explored, almost every business was a restaurant, café or bar. Some have fish tanks standing in the street outside, from which you can choose the fish you fancy for dinner. (I assume that, once they’re removed from the tank, they’re taken out of sight to be dispatched.)
As well as these individual premises, there are whole malls devoted to every type of cuisine – in addition to Korean restaurants, there are Japanese sushi bars, Italian pizzeria, Swiss chocolate houses, and even an approximation of a British pub, sporting the sign ‘HAND COOKED DINING PUB’ – though, as I found when my hosts took me to an Italian restaurant, most practise ‘fusion’ cookery.
Whether you order a pizza, spaghetti, pie and peas or a hot chocolate, you’re likely to be offered a dish that, although it resembles its national original, is also redolent of Korean herbs and spices. My favourite restaurant, which I visited on my last evening, was a Korean B-B-Q restaurant. (This is how it is always spelt: these restaurants appear to be nationally celebrated.) It had charcoal braziers set into the tables. Patrons order raw meat from a selection on the menu (my own party chose a mixture of beef and pork), together with a range of salad and sauce accompaniments, and cook their own food. The main course was followed by two kinds of soup, one meat and vegetable based, one fish and seafood based, both very spicy. Koreans usually drink beer with this kind of meal, though there was also a strong white wine on offer (you drink it in sherry-type glasses, in very small quantities, and it tastes a bit like saké).
What else do Koreans like besides food? I was keen to find out so that I could buy presents, but even Koreans were at a loss to tell me. I discovered that Korea is home to a renowned type of ginseng and very good for silk ties. There are whole shops devoted to candles (though, on closer inspection, I found that the candles are imports from New York and Paris) and chemists’ shops, often selling vast ranges of foreign make-up, are popular. Otherwise, the main passions do indeed seem to be food and drink. This impression was borne out by the wares at the airport shops, where I saw very little on display except extensive pyramids of food and alcohol and an impressive range of electronic products. I couldn’t even find postcards, either at the airport or anywhere else.
Would I like to return? As I said at the beginning, my stay was very short and I can’t claim to have formed an accurate opinion of Seoul. I certainly liked the people: they were courteous and fun-loving, hard-working but not over-serious: I’d like to go back to become better acquainted with some of them. But I didn’t find Seoul itself as interesting as some of the other Asian cities I’ve visited. I’d be very happy, though, to be told that I’ve completely missed the point.