Journey to ‘the middle of the world’

09 +00002017-01-30T12:36:14+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments

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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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In quest of the soul of South Korea

09 +00002016-01-17T21:00:56+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments

Seoul 4

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.

Library reading room

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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The bird in the house

09 +00002015-11-07T20:26:27+00:0030 2012 § 1 Comment

A wonderfully atmospheric post. A magic melange of images.

Murielle's Angel

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‘There was a bird flying round the house,’ the Boxer told me.  She had no answer for what happened to it?or, how did it get in and out.

‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘but it looked quite startled.’

‘i expect you were startled too.’

‘I expect I was,’ she said vaguely, ‘but it was early.’

These days I suspect a slight detachment from reality. Lost in her thoughts she will not answer plain questions deflecting them with vague answers like, I can’t think right now, or I don’t know, you decide. Till I’m unsure whether this is simply because of the effort needed to answer or decide, or whether she actually doesn’t know anymore.
Things have slipped that once were sacrosanct. Take reading the newspaper cover to cover and marking up television programmes not to be missed.
Now, not only are the TV choices not made, but the ability to…

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Interview Special: Crime Author Christina James Becomes Less Of A Mystery

09 +00002015-03-14T11:45:33+00:0031 2012 § 6 Comments

Assalamu alaikum, people of Kuala Lumpur

09 +00002015-01-27T11:10:15+00:0031 2012 § 6 Comments

Composing oneself at the top of Petronas Towers

Composing oneself at the top of Petronas Towers

"It's only a model!"

“It’s only a model!”

Last week, the day job took me to Kuala Lumpur. I was away for five days, two of which were spent travelling almost around the clock (mad, I know, but I assure you it was worth it!). Once I had arrived, I was privileged to be the honoured and somewhat overwhelmed guest of two universities in the city. My impressions of the country and its people during so short a stay, although vivid, are therefore inevitably sketchy, so I apologise in advance for any observations that may strike those who know Malaysia better than I do as either incomplete or simply wrong.
Malaysia is a young (just over half a century since independence), very proud country, and also a thrustingly ambitious one. All of these qualities are epitomised by the twin towers – the Petronas Towers – that were built in the KLC district of the city in 1998 and are now the tallest twin towers in the world. Following many recommendations from my Asian colleagues, I chose to spend most of my single free half-day travelling to them and taking the tourists’ trip to the top. As the Towers are eighty-eight storeys high, this provides a panoramic view of Kuala Lumpur and delivers a 360-degree demonstration of just how much development work is taking place there. High-rise buildings are everywhere and many, although dwarfed by the Petronas Towers themselves, are giants by UK standards. Nor is it all about size: most of the buildings are beautifully designed and Malaysians are increasingly strict about the standards of architecture they consider acceptable for their capital city. Whilst at the top of one of the Petronas Towers, I was lucky enough to see an inferior skyscraper being demolished: it collapsed in clouds of black dust.

In the race to the top, one down... and more, I think, to go.

In the race to the top, one down… and more, I think, to go.

A view from the bridge... between the towers

A view from the bridge… between the towers

Another view from the bridge

Another view from the bridge

As I’ve said, my impressions are based on only a little information, but it did strike me that Kuala Lumpans are in such a hurry to become world leaders that they are in danger of destroying not just their immediate past, but also their much older heritage; and this notion resonated with some of my colleagues when I voiced it. I saw little architecture in the city that was more than thirty years old and nothing at all that was likely to have pre-dated my own birth.
Yet, paradoxically, despite their keenness to ‘get on’, the overwhelming majority of Malaysians whom I met, almost all of whom were extremely well-educated, were gentle, polite, courteous, humorous and modest. They were not ‘go-getters’ in the sharp-elbowed sense. They have their own, highly honourable, way of making progress in today’s world. Much of this stems from the fact that they are also very devout. At both of the universities that I visited, the call to prayers sounded five times each day. The prayer rooms hold only twenty to thirty people and those not able to take part exactly on the hour await their turn patiently, but they make it quite clear, whatever the task in which they are engaged or the conference or focus group to which they are contributing, that prayer comes first.
Despite this apparent unanimity about how things should be done, I did observe some collisions as Eastern values met Western ones; not, however, at the universities, where highly-qualified librarians and academics have no problem with reconciling traditional dress and customs with exacting, high-profile jobs. The suite of rooms in which our meetings took place are normally occupied by eminent doctors and surgeons and are designed to help them relax from cutting-edge medical research and surgical operations. That we were very privileged to have had them generously give up these quarters to us for a whole day was not lost upon us.
Most of the men and women employed by the university wear traditional dress. This is at once exuberant and dignified. The men’s tunics and the women’s shalwar kameezes (they call them this, even though mostly the garments consist of three-quarter-length tunics and long skirts, rather than trousers) are beautifully made, often embroidered or sequined, and frequently in very bright colours. Sometimes the women wear tailored versions in heavy silk. The more austere outfits are a little more nun-like, and stick to plainer cloth – usually cotton – in light blues, greys and navy. But all these advocates of traditional dress wear their clothes with pride and often the women fasten their hijabs with many-jewelled brooches or enhance them with a framework of pearls. I saw no black burqas or niqabs at the universities.
Where I did see one such outfit was at the Petronas Towers. Since these are frequented by tourists, its owner may not have been Malaysian. I could see from her eyes and deduce from the age of her husband that she was very young – probably a girl still in her teens. And she didn’t look unhappy: he was holding her hand and they were walking along together, laughing. What was striking was the difference between this couple and another Asian couple (again, of course, I cannot make an accurate guess at their nationality), also taking the Twin Towers tour and also holding hands. The girl, also probably in her late teens, was wearing a short-sleeved black T-shirt and immaculate, but very short, white shorts.
How will Malaysia’s future unfold? From now on, I shall be fascinated to observe and find out. I hope that it will prosper as it wishes, and I also hope that it will at the same time manage to preserve its heritage and its traditions. I think that its most prominent religion may be the key: this week I was extremely honoured to have been able to immerse myself in how true Islam – tolerant, humorous, friendly, hospitable and forgiving – makes a huge contribution to the world in which we live.

A sense of proportion?

A sense of proportion?

And a sense of scale

And a sense of scale

And so high above all those!

And so high above all those!

A few degrees of the 360

A few degrees of the 360

Strong links in the chain to ‘Sausage Hall’, to be published Nov. 17th 2014

09 +00002014-11-12T17:54:28+00:0030 2012 § 10 Comments

Sausage Hall
I am extremely grateful to you, the readers of this blog, both those of you whom I’ve met in person and those from countries around the world whom I’ve met ‘virtually’, for the huge welcome that you have given Sausage Hall.  Thank you very much indeed.

As many of you know, Sausage Hall will be published next Monday, November 17th.  My wonderful publishers, Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery at Salt Publishing,
Salttheir equally stellar PR consultant, Tabitha Pelly, Faber (which now represents Salt titles) and my bookselling and librarian friends have combined to make happen a series of celebration events.

The first of these is today, Thursday November 13th, when Nicola Gilroy will be interviewing me live on Radio Lincolnshire at 14.05. I hope that you will be able to listen; if not, I think the interview will be on iPlayer for twenty-four hours after broadcast.

Monday November 17th is a very special day indeed. I’m spending much of it at Spalding High School,
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where I was once a student (Facebook doesn’t know this, having inexplicably assigned me to Wycliffe Senior School and Sixth Form College!  I don’t intend to disabuse it!).  I’m giving a young writers’ workshop and talking about how I came to write Sausage Hall, but first of all I’m being taken on a tour of the school by Adrian Isted, the present Head of English.  I’m really looking forward to this, and especially to meeting the students.

Also on November 17th, in the evening, Bookmark, Spalding’s very distinguished bookshop,
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is hosting the official launch event. This will begin at 19.00.  I’m delighted to be able to announce that it is being sponsored by Adams and Harlow, the pork butchers, who will supply sausage-themed canapés.  Wine will also be served. As well as signing copies of Sausage Hall, I’ll be giving some readings and talking about all the DI Yates novels.  I’d like to offer my thanks in advance to Christine Hanson and Sam Buckley, who have supported all the novels as they’ve been published.  In conjunction with Spalding Guardian, they’ve also arranged a DI Yates competition, the prizes for which will be four sets of the DI Yates titles.

On November 18th, I’m travelling to Walkers Books in Stamford,
Walkers
where I’ll be signing copies of Sausage Hall and talking about it informally between 11.00 and 13.00. I’d like to thank Tim Walker and Jenny Pugh for all their support.  More about this may be found here.

Wednesday November 19th finds me back at wonderful Wakefield One, where Alison Cassels has organised Tea at Sausage Hall, an informal talk-and-signing session, with refreshments, that will start at 14.30.  Regular readers will know that Wakefield One has been a particularly magnificent supporter of mine.  Books will be supplied by Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books, another staunch supporter.

Rickaro Books, Horbury

Rickaro Books, Horbury

There is more about Tea at Sausage Hall here.  If you live in the Wakefield area or are visiting, it would be great to see you at this event.

On Thursday November 20th the Waterstones bookshop in Covent Garden is giving a London launch event.  As Adams and Harlow are sponsoring this, too, there will be sausages as well as wine!  This reading and signing session will begin at 19.00 and continue until the shop closes.  It has already attracted a large audience, so it should be quite a party!  The store’s brilliant manager, Jen Shenton, and I would be delighted to see you there.  More information can be found here.

And Friday 21st November?  At present, nothing is planned, so this will be a rest day…  but I’m open to offers!

Christina James. The editor’s cut.

09 +00002014-11-04T09:36:36+00:0030 2012 § 9 Comments

After a shadowy existence, Jim steps out into the glare!

Strange Alliances

Sausage Hall

Just before Christina James launches DI Tim Yates into another investigation in Sausage Hall, I managed to run her other half, Jim (aka Mr J), to ground and interrogate…sorry that should be interview… him on what it was like not only living with a crime writer but also editing her work.

How did you first meet?

We were students together at Leeds, following the same English course, and so we knew each other from lectures and seminars. Then some mutual friends, already an ‘item’, suggested we went as a couple with them to a hall of residence ball. Nothing, for the romantics reading this, came of it. However, two years later, we were both in Leeds during the vacation and I asked her to keep an eye on my car for a week, whilst I went rock climbing with a minibus group in Derbyshire. I took her for a…

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