Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Buenos Aires Trip

Starting point Humberside International Airport. This is how international airports should be. Small, relaxed and friendly. Someone leaves their transparent bag of liquids at the x-ray machine. Instead of a Tannoy announcement, a guy strolls round and simply raises his voice, catching the attention of those waiting for the eight destinations on the board.
Then the words ‘delayed’ and ‘on hold’ pop up on the list. There is fog in Amsterdam and we can’t take off until we have a landing slot. For a while it looks as though fog in Amsterdam will delay my arrival in Buenos Aires by 12 hours, but in the end it's fine. One of the other delayed destinations is Neptune*. I think maybe there’s fog on Mars, too.

Cutting a long long journey short, I arrive in the middle of the night (though at the time I'm not sure which night) and in one of the most torrential rain storms I've ever seen. Don’t get wet though because a guy on the plane has commandeered three of us: me and a couple going back-packing, to share an airport car. Expensive for one but not between four. It takes us door to door.

The hotel room has no tea (this isn't England after all), no desk, not a lot of room, but I don’t care. I fall into bed and am asleep in seconds. I sleep so well I'm up at dawn for breakfast.
So many dire warnings not to carry handbags, not to display iPhones, that I end up not taking many pics to start with, though I take a short video from the roof terrace where we have coffee.

The warnings are not for nothing. Three laptops and a wallet disappear from a meeting the first day, while their owners are still in the room. It’s almost sleight of hand, a slick operation to hit hard and fast before anyone's guard is properly up. By the night of the gala dinner at the yacht club, so many people have been robbed that the official speaker feels obliged to mention it and apologize.

Nonetheless, it’s an amazing place. A huge city that we don’t have the time to explore properly. 
A taxi driver takes us on an hour’s trip around parts of the city, but it isn't long enough. Ideally, we'd stay on and explore more of the country.
Flying in at night shows that the city is built on blocks like New York. No shortcuts, but things easy to find. Even so, we are warned several times not to venture into certain areas. La Boca is mentioned in hushed tones. ‘You want to go to La Boca? Find another cab driver’.

Oddly enough we can’t get on a tourist bus because they've sold out of tickets. The odd bit is that as we travel the city, we see many of the tourist buses and none of them has more than 3 people on. We even try to board one of the empty buses, but despite a hastily convened conference of the driver, guide and various others, the consensus is that they can't let us on without a ticket. I get the impression they'd like to fill their empty seats but some bureaucratic tangle won't allow it.

Our taxi driver gives a commentary as he takes us round. It's just about audible on the videos.

I meet a Spanish guy whose wife is Argentinian. They live in London but have bought land in Uruguay.  

I ask why Uruguay. He tells me that the places in the Americas with the least corruption are Canada and Uruguay. Other people tell me the same – about Uruguay anyway. 

The conference is less than pleased with Canada whose government has decided that educational writers should write educational material purely for love. 

We hear some disturbing tales at the International Authors Forum of the things writers are asked to accept in the digital age.

Our own government in the UK flirted with the idea of shafting educational writers, which is a shame when the quality of UK educational writing is so good. Great way to save money for schools. Stop paying the writers. I wonder why it’s OK to ask writers to work for nothing but not the companies who provide the computers or the plumbers who keep the sanitation systems working.

The gala dinner: We are herded onto buses and taken to the river bank where small boats take us half a dozen at a time across to the yacht club. The landing stages are flat wooden affairs with no rails. What will happen at the other end of the night when people wander out awash with the wine that always flows at these events? Surely we’ll be fishing copyright experts out of the river into the small hours.

Then I realize that those who champion copyright in these turbulent times are used to being in deep water and there’s no need to worry. Indeed, everyone makes it home safely.

*I assume it's an oil rig

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Things that can happen in a week

It’s not that I hadn't expected Autumn to arrive while I was on the other side of the world. I knew I’d be returning from shirtsleeves sunshine to the cold nip of November weather. And we all know what happens in Autumn… Fall… Leaves everywhere. And now we've let the grapevine into the house…

We get an indoor fall too.

And since the grapes had been invited in, I guess it was but a small step to sprouts on the bookcase and marrows on the settee.

But even so, I was only away a week!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

In memory of Ann 1955 – 2012

Today, family and friends said goodbye to Ann in a service and celebration that she had planned herself. The work of bringing Ann’s plans to fruition largely fell to Sue who did a magnificent job. It was a day of which Ann would heartily have approved.

The Requiem Mass was led by Father Patrick Gilsenan with readings from Bibi Bugg of the Veteran-Cycle Club (Isaiah 25: 6-9), Jan Wilems (St Paul to the Romans 14: 7-12); two hymns, Pie Jesu and Ave Maria sung by Sharon Bower; Shakespeare’s Fear No More read by Ann’s brother, Richard and the eulogy that I was privileged to share with Sue Thorne. 

Sue gave an entertaining and moving tribute to Ann, especially to her determination in the big things, which Sue contrasted to Ann’s impatience with anything she deemed not worth the effort. As she said later, anyone who has had a Christmas present from Ann will know that she soon tired of putting effort into neat wrapping.

Sue recounted Ann’s struggle for independence with a wheelchair – a long hard struggle that she won hands down, starting with a foray of 10 yards up the road and ending with regular 10 kilometre walks, and how the new sporty chair became Ann’s pride and joy. Ann’s last 10 kilometre trek was completed when she was already ill just before her diagnosis.

Sue also recounted the time, during one of these endurance tests, when Ann, misjudging a backward manoeuvre up a kerb in her new lightweight chair, had catapulted herself into a full backward somersault from which she picked herself up, climbed back into the chair and completed the course.

At the crematorium service, Ann’s choices of music were a song I've never heard before, the beat of which is in my head as I type but I can’t remember the name of it. I will find it out and edit it into this blog. *It was John the Revelator* The second was Into the West, a lovely evocative song by Annie Lennox that brought tears to many eyes. And finally, Blackbird by the Beatles .

Family and friends gathered at the Horseshoe Bar where Sue had organised a superb feast at Ann’s behest, and where there were photographs of Ann to spark new memories.

A year or so after the diagnosis that gave her six months maximum and probably no more than three, Ann had joked that people would get fed up with her taking so long to die and the church would be empty at her funeral. In fact, both the church and the crematorium were packed as was the Horseshoe, and many friends not able to be there had sent their best wishes. Over the past year Ann was in touch with many old friends and had said how pleased she was to have been able to make those final contacts by way of saying her goodbyes.

I can’t reproduce Sue’s exact words about Ann. She spoke from the heart, without a script and from a few scribbled notes. She did Ann proud in every respect.  I was honoured that Ann asked me to share the eulogy with Sue. It was both one of the easiest things and one of the hardest things I’ve done. 

This is what I said about Ann:
In the summer of 2011, soon after her diagnosis, Ann told me she was sorry we wouldn’t make the 50th anniversary of our first ever meeting. She laughed about it. She never stopped being able to laugh. But we made that anniversary. In September this year we passed that 50 year mark.

I first met Ann at Mylnhurst Primary School in Sheffield. It was in 1962 at the start of the school term. We were 7 years old. She was a newcomer, fresh from Bangor in Ireland. Looking back now I can see how intimidating it must have been for a newcomer, dumped into an inquisitive gaggle of young children and left to fend for herself. But she was never intimidated, not by the cleverest in the class nor the sportiest. She would take on anyone. In fact I’m pretty sure Ann was the instigator of the boys versus girls fights that were all the fashion that year.

My most vivid memories of Ann in those early days were not so much her physical fearlessness, but her mental prowess. She burst in upon us and raised our political awareness. We knew the name of the Queen, and we were fairly well versed in church politics (it was that sort of school) but many of us were shaky on details such as who was prime minister and who were the major political parties of the day. Ann could not only name the Prime Ministers of this country and others, she could name their ministers and talk about their economic policies. She even knew what a cabinet was in this context.

The schools we shared were places that put a high premium on academic achievement in the sense of passing exams, but Ann introduced us to a wider knowledge of the world, especially of politics. She made political discussion and thinking cool… hip… trendy. And this is when we were 7 and 8 years old.  I for one was very impressed by the breadth of her knowledge. It was something I wanted to emulate, and never stopped wanting to emulate.

Ann was a rarity in our world. What I didn't come to appreciate until many years later was that she was a rarity in anyone's world. I’ve spent many years of my working life teaching in a university, a large part of which is teaching people how to think, how to be objective, how not to be swayed by bias and rhetoric. Ann had arrived in my life aged 7 with all those capabilities already in the bag.

Later at secondary school, Notre Dame in Sheffield, some of the more enlightened teachers would invite political debate and often find themselves flummoxed if they crossed swords with Ann. I have memories of several retiring cross in the face of Ann’s reasoned argument, resorting to exercising their authority to change the subject.

One example that sticks in my mind concerns a long-suffering French woman who came in once every few weeks to try to teach us about France. In the midst of a raging debate with Ann over the Common Market, during which the teacher became more and more apoplectic - having invited debate, she hadn't expected disagreement, and reasoned disagreement at that - she suddenly announced that every word must be spoken in French. I remember Ann laughing ruefully afterwards at how the subtleties of her carefully built argument had crumbled. She could probably have written the essay but those were the days when French conversation in schools came a very poor second to grammar and the written word.

Ann moved to Sheffield High School for her A levels and then on to Sheffield University. But like me she left school not really clear on what career to pursue. We kept in touch in those post-school years, though in that careless way one does at that age where you just assume you won’t lose touch with people. Indeed Ann and I might have drifted apart but for bumping into each other one day. Literally. I turned a corner into Clarkson Street in Sheffield and bumped into Ann. It turned out we were working in different places but in very similar roles. Ann was then working in the pathology labs at Sheffield Children’s Hospital. We arranged to meet for a drink – in the West End pub if memory serves. When we met, we just picked up where we’d left off as though there had never been a gap.

And it’s always been like that. From that time, we never lost touch though it would sometimes be a few years between meetings especially after she moved to Birmingham. At university there she completed her law degree and she also met and married Jim. It was typical of the relationships Ann built with people that despite their later divorce, they remained close throughout her life.

In all the time I knew her, Ann never lost her disdain for ignorant rhetoric and those who fall under its spell. Over the years her name popped up in places as diverse as the Guardian and the pages of cyclists’ magazines, where her letters or articles would forensically demolish some popular myth. Her article, A Pyrrhic Victory, in Connecting Linkmagazine was classic Ann exploding the myths of the smoking debate. 

I've treasured my friendship with Ann. I've valued her integrity; that I could trust her to tell it how it was; that she didn't suffer fools gladly and that included me when I’d been a fool. It took me a long time to appreciate how rare these qualities were, but I'm grateful to Ann for being one of the reasons I grew up expecting high standards of the people I met along the way. Precious few reached them, but I learnt how to value the precious few. I'm also grateful that I was given the chance to tell Ann what our friendship meant to me.

And 18 months ago Ann amazed me all over again with the way she responded to her diagnosis. She took it in her stride and made the best of it. She didn't let it wreck what was left of her life, which at that time she thought would be over before Christmas 2011. She didn't want to be called brave; didn't see herself as brave. She saw it as just taking the most sensible course of action. I guess the same way she saw all her other qualities as just the right way to do things. I'm not sure she ever appreciated what a special person she was, but I guess very special people rarely do.

Of course she had worries and regrets and must have had times of fear and despair, but they never overwhelmed her. The last time I saw her – three weeks before she died – she was still laughing at life, still living it, still in essence the very same Ann I’d met 50 years previously.

It’s terrible that Ann had to die so young, but it’s a comfort to know that she had Sue with her throughout; that she couldn't have been better looked after during her illness; and that she died peacefully at home with those she loved. She touched and enriched more lives than she ever realised. She was inspirational. It was a real privilege to know her. She will be very badly missed.

Monday, 12 November 2012

My Next Big Thing

I was invited to take part in the Next Big Thing chain blog by Jessica Blair (otherwise known as Bill Spence). My five nominees, who are listed at the end with links to their blogs, will go live a 20 Nov.

I'm just celebrating the publication of Where There's Smoke, the 4th in my contemporary crime thriller series set in Yorkshire. 

As that hardback comes out, the previous two – The Jawbone Gang and The Doll Makers – are poised to come out as ebooks. 

And as is usually the case with a series, the next one is already underway and will, hopefully, be My Next Big Thing.

What is the working title of your book?

Buried Deep

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It’s my 5th Private Investigator whodunit and it has just evolved as my heroine has grown up.

What genre does your book fall under?

Unlike the first four, this is not entirely private investigator / whodunit / thriller. It’s all those things but it’s also a police procedural

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I usually reckon 8 to 9 months but it depends how busy the day jobs are (I have two of those) and this year has been particularly busy

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It’s a bit complex puzzle a la Jeffrey Deaver and a bit psychological thriller a la Thomas Harris. Ha ha. I should be so lucky!

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

It’s an on-going exploration of ordinary people and weird happenings in the county of Yorkshire. Soon after we arrived in the area, a neighbour dug up a body whilst building a kitchen extension – how can you not write crime after that sort of introduction?

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

If you've followed Annie Raymond’s career from when she was a complete rookie thrown in at the deep end (in Like False Money), through unearthing the horrors of her past (in The Doll Makers, the book that won a Crime Writers’ Dagger), then I hope you’ll be all agog to see how she copes as an experienced operator pitched into the heart of a major police investigation.

Which five writers will take over from you next week and tell us about their next big thing:-
  • Danuta Reah - award-winning crime writer
  • Dan and Gabi - superb cookbook-writing duo. Authors of FIFTY SHADES OF GRAVY.
  • April Taylor, who writes mainly crime but also short stories and non-fiction.
  • Stuart Aken - prolific short story writer, blogger and novelist.
  • Karen Wolfe - writer of comic fantasy, creator of Granny Beamish.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

A superbly crafted book

Some Tame GazelleSome Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of those books where human nature is so beautifully observed it becomes a riveting read. No drama, upheaval or even action in the usually accepted sense, but plenty of all those things for sisters Belinda and Harriet Bede whose genteel life is buffeted by the comings and goings of village and church life. In terms of observing and drawing out the minutiae of life and making it live on the page, Barbara Pym is up there with the greats. One of those books that gently pulls you in and before you know it, you're in a different hemisphere and the pilot is instructing the cabin crew to take their seats for landing.
A superbly crafted book.

View all my reviews

Thursday, 8 November 2012

You can't beat a good short story collection

FusionFusion by lots of authors including Stuart Aken
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love this book. I always loved short story anthologies but good ones aren't thick on the ground. This has a wide selection of stories - fantasy and sci-fi but a very wide variety. They cover happy, sad, uplifting, serious, light-hearted, funny.
I sort of saw this book as it developed because I was asked to judge the competition from which many of the stories came, but after the short list and winners were announced, the authors  and editors worked to polish the entries for publication. And what a difference they've made to their stories. From good to great. I didn't expect to find myself engrossed in the ones I'd already read, but I was, from start to finish.

View all my reviews

Friday, 19 October 2012

I am extremely annoyed in these days of widespread identity theft

I am extremely annoyed with a company called BHSF (whatever that stands for), even though they appear to be a legit company who are ‘authorised and regulated by the Financial Services Authority’. Mind you, reading the business press since 2008 makes me wonder how much protection the ordinary punter can expect via regulation by the FSA.

This outfit is carrying out a survey because, I quote, ‘good businesses like BHSF listen to their customers’ views’. Well, here are mine:

1                     Don’t send me unsolicited letters containing questionnaires that are already partly filled in with confidential information about me.
Because I don’t like junk mail, but I understand it’s a part of life and some of it will get through no matter what, but for that mail which gets through the various nets, I want to be able to bin it with the least possible hassle. I seriously resent spending my time having to shred your letters because they contain confidential information. DON’T DO IT!
2                     If you want to conduct a survey about who buys your products and what they think of them, then label it as such.
Because it is dishonest to head both your letter and your questionnaire, ‘Higher Education survey 2012’, when it is nothing of the kind. It is a set of questions about your products.
3                     And what are my overall views on a company that sends me a dishonestly labelled questionnaire, partly filled in with confidential data, on which I have to spend time (shredding etc) that I can ill-afford?
My impression is that you’re dishonest and lack integrity.

I’m now going to catch up on the things I should have been doing such as packing for a business trip. Perhaps you would like to post the dates of my absence on your website for the benefit of any opportunist thieves who would like to try their luck.

So, BHSF, if you’ve listened to my views, please feel free to respond to this blog. I’m not holding my breath.

[Note to opportunist thieves who would like to try their luck: the house won’t be empty and when the dog has finished with you, it will not only be the BHSF questionnaire that looks shredded]

Monday, 20 August 2012

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The launch of the Writers’ Toolkit

It turned into an amazing, busy event, exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. We’d had 34 pieces in to critique and planned two mini tutorials. From there the event blossomed with discussions and comments threads springing up everywhere. I don’t know if there’s an official unit of measurement for Facebook events but our final timeline was ENORMOUS. This is a summary with links to most useful bits. Please browse. Please comment.

The links here are mostly to Facebook and require you to be logged in to a Facebook account.  

The mini-tutorials.
  1. Creating a focused pitch: part 1part 2 and part 3.
  2. Writing believable dialogue: part 1part 2 and part 3.
As luck would have it, writing coach Linda Acaster posted a review of the Writers’ Toolkit on Goodreads on the morning of day one, which was a great lead into the first tutorial because her review included the words, 'THE INSTRUCTIONS FOR PREPARING A TWO-SENTENCE PITCH ALONE WAS WORTH THE COST OF THE BOOK.' Thanks, Linda, that was perfect timing!

Some of the advice and tips that popped up during the two days
Some of the discussions
Charity donation
Fantastic Books Publishing donated £1 to the World Cancer Research Fund for every book bought during the launch. Thanks, FBP. You Rock!

The critiques and the winning extracts
Each critique was posted in two parts with people commenting on the work, the critique and on writing in general. We worried beforehand about what we’d do if we had a completely dire extract – we certainly didn’t want to castigate a fellow writer on a public forum. However, we were determined to be both honest and constructive because otherwise what would be the point? And we dodged that particular bullet because everything we read had merit and potential. And some extracts were truly outstanding. We shortlisted six. You can see them on the results link below.

I’m afraid you’ll have to explore the timeline to get at all the critiques, but there are a few links below. And what an ‘interesting’ slant that FB timeline gave to the whole event! With people popping in and out from all over the world, early posts were being liked or commented hours after first posting. And as soon as someone commented, that post would shoot to the top of the timeline. It made finding things incredibly difficult. I resorted to ctrl+f and searching for key words, which is one of the reasons for this blog with its permalinks. I only learnt about FB permalinks through doing this event.

An open poll was held where people could vote for their favourite extract. In addition, Danuta Reah and I (as the Writers’ Toolkit authors) drew up a shortlist of extracts we thought the best and chose a winner from this list. The results were posted at the end of the launch.

·     The Writers' Toolkit - available in paperback - ebook to come.

What's the best place for a novel to start?

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Another close encounter with a bird of prey

The last time I was this close to a bird of prey was in 2010 when it made two attempts at breaking and entering. This time we just chanced upon what was probably a kestrel (must get the bird book out) hunting down the lane. It posed on a telegraph post, inviting a photo, then flew to the next post and struck another pose. Very annoying that I ended up with two shots of an empty lane. Here's one of them:

Then I switched to video and tried again. More empty lane, but just a fraction of a second of flapping wings as it dives out of range. Maybe I should stick to writing. Photos are not my thing.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Who’s been monkeying about with the National Anthem at the London Olympics?

A record number of people are there all set to join in a rousing chorus (the ones who know the words, anyway), and someone decided to throw a spanner in the works.

That bit in the middle, the pause where the music usually goes da-da-da-da: it’s there for a reason. It’s for a large intake of breath so that the crowds teetering at the cliff edge of ‘Send her victorious!’ know just when to launch themselves off into it and can do so at maximum volume.

For some inexplicable reason (does it breach some sponsorship deal?) that da-da-da-da has disappeared for London 2012. It’s been replaced by a rather indeterminate dee-daa. All those patriotic crowds, arms whirling as they balance themselves for the leap, are overcome with indecision, casting panicked glances at their neighbours to see who knows when to jump. What would normally be a razor-sharp blast of sound degenerates into a series of mistimed mumbles, not managing to scramble back together much before ‘ICTORIOUS!’

There are some things that people just shouldn’t mess about with, they’re there for a reason: steering wheels on cars, tails on dogs and that da-da-da-da in the middle of the National Anthem.

Off with their heads!

Monday, 30 July 2012

AAGH! It’s spam!

Today I get crabby and fire off an email to several people, some of whom I don’t know, all of whom had forwarded the email that had enraged me.

Dear all
Please please don’t send on spam emails. But if you must, then to alleviate the problem of all sorts of people’s email addresses being traded back and forth to all sorts of people they have never met. USE BLIND COPY (bcc). Don’t leave the names of the recipients there for everyone to read. Look at the recipient list for this email. Do you see your name there? No. Neither can anyone else if it’s forwarded. Neat eh?

How do I know that it’s spam?
Emails with tales of teenagers with cancer who want everyone’s email system clogged up are SPAM. The clues that should alert you:

  1. The forwarded email will be tracked so the “terminally ill young girl” (oh please!) can know how many people got them… Oh yeah? Suppose you wanted to send on an email and know how many people it was forwarded to along its life, which option would you use, which box would you tick, how would the info come back to you? You don’t know? You couldn’t do it? No. Neither can this lot. It’s a scam to make you keep sending the email out to clog up people’s systems.
  2. It was sent by a “medical doctor”. A “medical” doctor? Wow! Brain cells please take immediate leave of absence. If it’s a ‘medical’ doctor, it must be completely above board and exactly what it says it is. How about let’s sack the “medical” doctor who has spent time sending out spam emails when s/he should be treating patients.
  3. “Send to everyone you know” “Send to those you don’t know” “One guy sent it to 500 people”. Translation for anyone who needs it: “This is spam” “Clog up the emails of everyone you can think of” “Pity the poor sods in his address book!”
  4. “The American Cancer Society will donate X cents per email sent”. Oh yeah? How’s that going to work given that a) there’s no way they can track them anyway and b) no legitimate organisation would ever raise money this way. Has anyone tried contacting them and asking. I haven’t, but I know what they’d say. They’d say essentially what I’ve said in 1 and 2 above.


Sorry to rant, but some of these things do damage. Most of us wouldn’t fall for this if it arrived by post or telephone. We must all have seen the TV programmes and newspaper stories exposing this stuff for what it is.
And if you still feel the need to send it on, USE BLIND COPY.
Oh and if you can’t do Blind Copy, DON’T SEND IT ON!

Rant over. If I’ve offended anyone, apologies, that wasn’t the intention. Please feel free to leave rude messages on my blog.


Monday, 18 June 2012

The grapes, the grapes.

If all the baby grapes ripen into adult bunches, the roof will cave in, which would be a shame because we can only use this room in Summer. See a very bad video here.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Greenwich Meridian has vanished

Which is bad news for Tunstall. As the coast erodes and falls into the sea, the point where the Meridian line leaves the UK and heads for the Arctic moves further south. A few years ago the marker was at the cliff top in Tunstall. We couldn’t find it at all today. 

It was tipping down with rain so we thought we might have missed it, but a bit of research shows that it did indeed fall off the cliff some years ago.

This was today’s rainy view from the top of the cliff:

There was a shiny new notice:

At the top of the path down to the beach:

With no Meridian marker as a guide, it was hard to know whether we were in the West or the East. In fact, the issue of whether or not the cliffs were about to crumble above us (when on the beach) or under our feet (when at the cliff top) was a more pressing concern than which side of the line we happened to be. And though wet, the beach with its retreating tide was lovely.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Poland trip – down the Salt Mine

Our second day we took a trip to a salt mine. It’s a working mine but didn’t feel like it, prettified for the tourists so that oddly any sense of the toil and the ever present danger of deep mining is gone. Gone from the public levels at least. We’re taken down to 900 metres. Three levels for tourists. Another six levels below. One sixth of the total area is opened to view. And what we’re shown is massive. It would be very easy to get lost in the maze of tunnels and caverns.

The 14th century parts of the mine are deemed too dangerous so some of the carvings and chapels (all made by the miners) have been restored and moved so they can be shown off to group after group of tourists.  Most of the carvings are salt, but in one place a 200 year old wooden Jesus gruesomely nailed to a wooden cross is watched by a wooden Mary from across the cavern. The colours are vibrant and exactly as they were when the carvings were done 200 years ago. The wood  hasn’t been touched in all that time. The salt preserves it.

Ornate chandeliers are hung with pure crystal salt, transparent and luminous. There are many religious figures, but also mythical creatures, dwarfs and so on, some being the miners’ friends, others not. The place is steeped in both superstition and religion. The mine houses Europe's largest underground chapel, though we wonder how much competition there can be for that title.

Cauliflowers of salt show where water seeps through. This spells danger. Water washes salt out, collapses caverns, and creates deadly sink holes at the surface hundreds of meters deep. In one place a lake has been created to make the cavern look better for the tourists. Not dangerous we’re told because the water is super saturated at 33%. However, a monster is said to lurk in its nine meter depths.

Myth has it that salt was originally brought to Poland from Rumania by Queen Kinga. There is a story of a wedding ring thrown away in one country and reappearing in another. The real story is shown in the archaeology of the stone age.

Everywhere are carved figures of miners working, of kings and queens, of religious figures, a recent one being a larger than life Pope John Paul II carved for the millennium, having taken one man 6 months to complete.

The huge cavern where masses, concerts and weddings are held took three men 67 years to build. When the first died, his son took over the work. And when the son died a third man took over and completed the work in the 1960s.

As we are hurried by our guide through tunnels and caverns, from galleries to staircases, real miners flit in and out of sight disappearing behind doors forbidden to us, wearing lamps and battery packs. They shake hands with our guides but ignore us. A surreal reminder that this underground tourist theme park is still a real working mine.

We pay to be allowed to take photos underground but none of mine come out.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Crime writers go to Krakow

It’s a beautiful city. There’s a centre with a maze of largely pedestrian streets and alleys, the weather warm enough for us to sit outside to eat.

As well as exploring the city streets, we went to Vavel castle, which was the home of the Polish monarchy.

Having climbed up and into the castle, we leave through the twisting tunnels of a cave called the Dragon’s Den. It is said to house the dragon that guards this entrance to the castle – no millionaires waiting to throw insults and shell out cash.

 Underground in the Dragon's Den

This way out leads to the banks of the Vistula.

The footbridge we cross has hundreds of padlocks locked to the mesh of the sides. Most are labelled with two names and a heart, reminiscent of the ancient graffiti at Stonehenge. Some of these are clearly as old as the bridge. The bridge itself doesn’t seem so old but other older bridges are also adorned with padlocks. We didn’t find anyone to explain the tradition.

At the other side we were in the industrial quarter – a sea change from the Krakow that draws the tourists, except that tourist buses drive past us every few minutes taking people to and from the Schindler factory which is our intended destination. A misreading of the map makes it a longer walk than it should have been. It’s a very intense experience to walk round what is now a packed museum knowing what happened here and what draws people.