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.

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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.

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