Hooked on Books: The National Book Festival, September 29, 2007

September 30, 2007 at 11:06 pm (books)

dscn0500c.JPG So…who is that woman in the distance. the slender one in white, with the fey smile and the ready riposte? It’s..it’s… Yes! It’s Joyce Carol Oates! Seeing and hearing this distinguished woman of letters (who has recently put the frighteners on Yours Truly with the stories “Feral” and “Hi! How Ya Doin!”) was probably the high point of our visit to this year’s National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington D.C.

dscn0492c.JPG We arrived at the festival around 10:15; we had planned to get there earlier but were delayed by the almost inevitable traffic meltdown on area roads and highways. Crowds were manageable at that hour but became less so as people continued to pour onto the Mall. My library buddies Nancy and Cristina (our intrepid driver) and I went our separate ways, having arranged to rendezvous at 2 PM. The first tent was designated “Mysteries & Thrillers” and I stayed put, as Deborah Crombie was scheduled to speak next. (Stephen Hunter was just finishing up.)

dscn0484c.JPG I enjoyed Crombie’s presentation very much. She was very much at ease at the podium. Of course, she had to address the perennial question of why she, a born and bred Texan, sets her books in England. She confessed to being an unabashed Anglophile, so of course there I sat feeling very much her kindred spirit in that respect! (I reviewed her latest novel, Water Like a Stone, several months ago.) [Photo: Deborah Crombie with her presenter, Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post Book World and author of The Triumph of the Thriller.]

dscn0489c.JPG From “Mystery & Thriller” I wandered over to “History & Biography” and was captivated by a small, wiry woman who was regaling the audience with anecdotes about fascinating folks like Salvador Dali, Richard Rogers, Bernard Berenson, and Lord Kenneth Clark. This turned out to be Meryle Secrest, a writer whom I knew by name only. Well, that is certainly going to change! Her latest book, apparently a memoir of her writing life, is called Shoot the Widow. That title might be have something to do with the fact that in the course of her research on famous, and in some ways notorious, subjects, she has received no fewer than three death threats! I looked Secrest up on Gale’s Literature Resource Center database. She was born in 1930 and judging by yesterday’s performance, is still going very strong indeed. [Photo: Meryl Secrest with her presenter Marie Arana of the Post’s Book World and author of the novel Cellophane.]

dscn0495c.JPG The tent next door (Is that a possible book title?) was “Home & Family.” An exceptionally large crowd had formed there and I soon found out why: medical superstar Dr. Sanjay Gupta was up next. Now my husband and I have been saying lately that we both feel “sick of health;” to be more precise, sick of the relentless media coverage of the subject, the shifting positions taken by various experts as to what is or is not good for you, and above all, sick of the sanctimonious pronouncements the “food police.” Well, I have to retrench a tad from that position: I could have listened to Dr. Sanjay all day! He really does have the knack for making complex issues understandable to the lay listener. He is incredibly knowledgeable on a wide range of health-related topics, and he seems also to possess a large fund of common sense where these issues are concerned. On a day filled with engaging speakers, he really was a standout. Naturally I have already placed a reserve at the library on his latest book, Chasing life : new discoveries in the search for immortality to help you age less today. This picture of him was of necessity taken from a considerable distance. This is unfortunate, because among his other virtues, Dr. Sanjay is very easy on the eyes!

dscn0496c.JPG I stuck around “Home & Family” for part of Nancy Pearl’s presentation. Most of us who are devotees of the reading life know and appreciate her recommendations in Book Lust and More Book Lust. Her latest work, Book Crush, is aimed at kids and teens. Pearl talked about what a joy it was to do research for this book, as it gave her many opportunities to talk with young readers about the books they love. She also related an anecdote about getting accidentally locked in the bathroom of a hotel in Portland, Oregon. She said the main fact that nearly caused her to panic was that she had nothing to read!

dscn0498c.JPG At that point, I decided I’d better make my way to “Fiction & Fantasy.” Joyce Carol Oates was scheduled to speak there at 1:20, and I thought if I got there twenty or so minutes early, I might get a seat. Foolish me! The mob of people who had just been listening to Edward P. Jones apparently had no intention of moving on. The best I could do was to stand at the very edge of the tent, just barely out of the sun, a very important consideration in the Washington area even in late September. Luckily the tents were all equipped with excellent public address systems, so I missed none of her talk. So, how was she? Surprisingly relaxed, colloquial, and warm. She praised Washington and said how fun she’d had going to various museums in recent days. She revealed to her listeners that the impulse to write her latest novel The Gravedigger’s Daughter had sprung from the discovery that a grandmother she had been very close to was Jewish. The single biggest surprise for me was that this author of some of the most macabre fiction I have ever read has a great sense of humor, which can at times be self-deprecating. This is somewhat amazing, coming as it did from an author who, in a lifetime of feverish writing, has produced over seventy books! [Photo: Joyce Carol Oates being presented by Michael Dirda of Book World]

dscn0493.JPG Were there problems at the Book Festival? Well. almost inevitably, there were. Books were sold in two tents at either end of the Mall, and both locations were mobbed – at least, by early afternoon. The lines went on forever. So the spirit – and wallet – were willing, but the situation made the actual purchasing of books impossible. And of course, even if you managed to purchase a book (or had the foresight to bring your own copy from home, which is certainly what I’ll do if I attend this function in the future), when it came to getting it signed by the author, you were again faced with very long lines. I’m not sure what the solution is, given the large number of attendees. One change that could be readily made, though, would be to put a sign up giving the name of the current speaker at any given location. I found myself more than once fumbling with my various papers trying to ascertain just who was up there at the podium.

dscn0487.JPG The Mall has two wide gravel paths running from one end to the other. Now we had a beautiful day yesterday, so it seems churlish to complain about the weather, but we’ve had so little rain in this area lately that a prodigious amount of dust was rising from the paths. A little touch of the Wild West there – oh, for a bandanna to tie around one’s face! And as for the facilities, there were numerous portable johns, but the situation was less than optimal. Again, perhaps unavoidable, given the sheer number of people. It was possible to go into one of the museums and use the facilities there, but I just knew that if I did that, I might never come back out to the festival!

My friends and I left after hearing Joyce Carol Oates. We were glad we had made the effort to attend this event. As we headed back to the car, we passed a small but spirited anti-war demonstration. The police were present and vigilant; everything was peaceful. I always feel a little stab of pride whenever I see scenes such as this. So yesterday, we witnessed a gratifying celebration of the greatness of books right next to a demonstration of the freedom to dissent. Altogether, a good day to be in our nation’s capital.

[Addendum, Monday October 1: Apparently I wasn’t the only one to be pleasantly surprised by Joyce Carol Oates!]

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Ripon, in North Yorkshire

September 29, 2007 at 10:48 pm (Anglophilia, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

ripon-cathedral.jpg Located eleven miles north of the delightful spa town of Harrogate, Ripon is a small cathedral city in North Yorkshire. And I do mean small: as of the 2001 census, it was inhabited by just under 16,000 souls, making it the fourth smallest city in England. (And why is such a tiny place even termed a city? See this article in Wikipedia for the answer.) We stopped for a visit there on the first full day of our tour (only hours before Yours Truly’s “Down in the Dales” mishap). Ripon contains all the beauties of other Yorkshire villages I have seen – Skipton, Ripley, Pateley Bridge, Grassingon, Askrigg, Hawes – along with the bonus of a beautiful cathedral. Ripon Cathedral is one of England’s tallest cathedrals while at the same time being its smallest. But, as one would expect, this being the North of England, it is a treasure house inside…

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The exerior is likewise gorgeous (see above). And with its history of being founded as a church and monastery around 672 AD and then being repeatedly sacked and rebuilt – three times! – throughout medieval times, Ripon Cathedral put me in mind of St. Mary’s Lastingham, which I visited when I was in Yorkshire two years ago. Once again I found myself standing in an ancient crypt built by the Saxons over a thousand years ago; once again I had goose flesh as the restless spirits of England’s past rose up to meet me…. ripon3.jpg

One more fascinating bit of lore about Ripon: there is a tradition of blowing a horn, called the Wakeman’s Horn, at nine o’clock every evening in the market place. In this way the evening watch was set. (I have also read that another purpose for sounding the horn was to guide hunters home from nearby fields and forests.) Depending on where you read about this custom, the horn is still blown each night, or possibly just on certain nights. At any rate, the custom dates back to the ninth century. As my husband has observed, they really know how to do “old” in the countryside of England.


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“Feral” ; or, scared out of my wits yet again by Joyce Carol Oates!

September 28, 2007 at 10:30 am (books, Short stories)

medium_oates.jpg “Feral” appears in Joyce Carol Oates’s new collection of stories, The Museum of Dr. Moses. In its power to disturb, it is on a par with “Hi! How Ya Doin’! from the same book. Kate and Stephen Knight have a six-year-old son named Derek. After suffering several miscarriages, Kate had finally given birth to Derek while in her late thirties. He is an intensely cherished child, a sweet, docile boy somewhat big for his age.

Then the unthinkable happens – or, nearly happens. Kate and some of her friends and their children are at the community pool when the daughter of one of them swallows rather too much water after a dive. For a few minutes, everyone’s attention, including Kate’s, is focused on this girl, who is in some distress but no real danger. Then Kate returns her gaze to the shallow end where Derek had been playing and sees that he is floating, inert, face down in the water.

Naturally, the reader thinks, Oh my God, every mother’s worst nightmare! And so it turns out to be, but not at all for the reason you think. Joyce Carol Oates has written a story that is exquisitely painful to read. I haven’t encountered fiction on the subject of parenting this unnerving since Rosemary’s Baby. In fact, now that I think about it, this tale is in some ways reminiscent of that notorious novel (and even more notorious – and terrifying – film). Many authors of horror and suspense strive so deliberately for a particular effect that their stories fall flat. This one is just the opposite: it is a small masterwork of horror and dread.

How could anything be worse than a child’s death by drowning? Read “Feral” and find out…

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Authors, authors! Ann Cleeves, Martin Edwards, and Stuart Pawson

September 26, 2007 at 8:09 pm (Mystery fiction, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

p1000939.JPG In the evening of our second day in Harrogate (Thursday September 13), we were treated to a panel of three authors: Ann Cleeves, Martin Edwards, and Stuart Pawson. I hadn’t know that we were to meet Martin Edwards until just before we left for England. This was excellent news; I had read all three of the novels in the Daniel Kind/Hannah Scarlet series, set in the Lake District, and enjoyed them a great deal. Of course, a vivid setting is a major plus for any novel, but the other crucial aspects of fiction, especially character and plot, must also be fully developed inorder for the novel to succeed. In my opinion, Edwards handles all of these elements superbly well; the books in this series just get better and better. [In the photo above, left to right: Stuart Pawson, Ann Cleeves, and Martin Edwards]

As to Ann Cleeves, her books had not been published in the U.S. until Raven Black came out – finally – in May of this year. (Cleeves’s cause was helped by the fact that last year, Raven Black won the prestigious Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award – previously called the CWA Gold Dagger.) I quite simply loved this novel! Like Martin Edwards, Cleeves has chosen a very evocative setting for this particular series: the Shetland Islands, off the coast of Scotland, are remote, exotic, and fascinating. Raven Black is the first in the projected Shetland Quartet. I eagerly await the second in the series, entitled White Nights and scheduled for publication in the U.K. in April 2008.

Although I had read good reviews of Stuart Pawson’s mysteries, I had not previously read any of them. The library had not purchased them, as they had not been published in the U.S. I bought the 2006 entry in the Charlie Priest series, Shooting Elvis; it looks like it should be quite entertaining. Mr. Pawson appeared to be a rather reserved gentleman who would have preferred to be elsewhere rather than in front of our group. I don’t think it was anything personal – some people are simply ill at ease in these situations. That evening all three authors dined with us. There were three tables, and they changed tables after each course, an experience which cannot have greatly aided digestion. Still, they were the soul of graciousness, including Stuart Pawson, who struck me as someone with whom it would probably be great fun to share a pint at the local pub.

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In the July issue of Literary Review, author Kathryn Hughes wrote an amusing piece about events such as the above entitled “Festival Frolics.” She admitted that while she tries to sound spontaneous when speaking in such settings, she actaully spends quite a bit of time practicing what she intends to say. Why? “I once did a whole hour’s talk on my first book, The Victorian Governess, in which I managed to use the phrase ‘male member’ half a dozen times before realising that I should really find a happier way of describing the men who happened to live in the same households as my governess-heroines.”


[Ann Cleeves and Martin Edwards signing their books. That’s me on the left, talking to Ann Cleeves.]

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Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick, by Jenny Uglow

September 25, 2007 at 1:11 pm (Anglophilia, Art, Book review)

I did not expect to be so caught up in the biography of someone I’d never heard of – but I loved this book! Thomas Bewick brought the art of wood engraving to a new height of excellence in the course of his long and productive life. Jenny Uglow has made the Northumberland of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century live again in Nature’s Engraver. Already there was a sense that the rural life of England’s north country was on the brink of change. But as a youth, Thomas Bewick could still revel in what seems to us now a kind of unspoiled, bucolic Eden.

And revel in it he did. Bewick was wild and hated school. He might have become a wastrel but he had a gift: he could draw. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to engraver Ralph Bielby. Bielby’s shop proved the perfect place for young Bewick; his talent was given scope to grow and mature. Eventually he started a shop of his own, ultimately becoming England’s premier wood engraver and book illustrator. His lifelong love of nature led him to produce a volume on quadrupeds, then most famously, on British birds. This is the book in which Jane Eyre is immersed at the beginning of Charlotte Bronte’s novel. She is grateful – desperately and poignantly so – for the escape and solace afforded her by Bewick’s masterwork. She especially loves the passages in the introduction “…which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; the ‘solitary rocks and promontories’ by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape… ‘Where the Northern Ocean, in vast whirls, / Boils round the naked, melancholy isles / Of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic surge / Pours in among the stormy Hebrides.'”

The book is studded with marvelous description: “Looking north, [Bewick] saw farms and villages backed by distant blue mountains; to the west the long line of the Cheviots stood out against the sky; to the east lay the castle woods and to the south stretched the park with its deer and hares and wild cattle.” Uglow brings this remote northern clime vividly to life; I felt myself to be deeply embedded therein, and, at the book’s conclusion, very reluctant to bid it farewell.

My husband and I often marvel at how the tiny isles comprising Great Britain have managed to produce so many world class achievers in virtually every field of human endeavor. In addition to the many famous individuals, Jenny Uglow has reminded us of one less well known, who deserves to be studied and remembered.

In Nature’s Engraver, numerous examples of Thomas Bewick’s art are reproduced. I find, however, that these miniature masterpieces are even more striking when viewed thus:

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Literature leads the way, as it always does, for some of us

September 23, 2007 at 3:42 pm (To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

One of the uniquely pleasurable aspects of these Smithsonian “Mystery Lovers” tours has been the way in which they simultaneously gratify the intellect and the senses. We travel, study, read, and learn. We take in cities, countryside, coastlines. We eat delicious – yes, delicious – British food! The driving is left to super-competent professionals, who navigate our large comfortable coaches through narrow, twisting lanes, while we stare out the window, mesmerized by the beauty of the hills and fields, all clothed in the most intense shades of green; “a green thought in a green shade,” comes over us again and again. At times you could believe yourself to be in an earlier century – or almost will yourself to be…

Then you are jerked back to reality: Ring, school bell! Our study leader Carol Kent is the professor we all wish we’d had in college; deeply knowledgeable, she is a speaker of great conviction with, at times, a downright uproarious sense of humor. We are not so much lectured as regaled, as she are carries us along on the tide of her enthusiasm. She made a comment about herself that I absolutely loved: “I live in hyperbole!”

The literary theme of this journey was the relationship between Gothic literature and mystery fiction. Carol made an extremely compelling case that the former is the direct ancestor of the latter. She listed some of the ways in which this literary morphing process occurred. For example:

“Sinister castles and gloomy ancestral mansions” become “Family homes, a police detective’s messy apartments, an amateur detective’s art-filled home.”

“Uncanny animals,” e.g. wolves, bats, and ravens, become – what else – cats!

“Supernatural motives” give way to motives rooted in reason.

“Terror” is pushed into the background and replaced by suspense as “the puzzle” comes to the fore.

The novel that bridges the gap between Gothic and mystery fiction, is The Moonstone. Carol put it beautifully: “The Gothic is subverted by the rational” in the pages of this famously entertaining work. What begins with the quintessentially Gothic device of a family curse ends with a genteel amateur – Franklin Blake – and Sergeant Cuff, a retired policeman, ultimately running the perpetrator to ground (although he has been murdered by the time they catch up with him). Nothing supernatural or exotic motivated this crime, only the dire need to replace misappropriated funds. An almost prosaic conclusion!

On this trip, with its tightly packed schedule of events, the body might tire, but the brain – never!

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Literature leads the way, Part Two

September 23, 2007 at 3:42 pm (books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

The reading list for “Mystery Lover’s England and Scotland” consisted of eleven titles. I have blogged five of them in the past several weeks: Death by Sheer Torture by Robert Barnard, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Raven Black by Ann Cleeves. Several books on the list I had read a while back and was not disposed to re-read: The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori by Robert Barnard, and Playing with Fire by Peter Robinson. And two I just plain didn’t read: Recalled to Life by Reginald Hill and Dracula by Bram Stoker.

Skipping Dracula proved to be a mistake: various aspects of the novel were frequently invoked during the trip. Like most people, I know the general outline of the story, but our journey took in specific locations relevant to the text. Obviously those aspects of the trip were more meaningful to group members who had recently read the book. My problem was that as our tour date approached, I found myself on vampire overload and rather weary of the whole I-want-to-suck-your-blood conceit; thus, I was unable to motivate myself to read the ur-text. Ah, well – live and learn! Anyway, the novel starts out with young Jonathan Harker making his way to Transylvania and Count Dracula in order to conclude a real estate transaction; this prompted our sage and witty study leader Carol Kent to observe that among other things, Dracula illustrates “the perils of business travel.” (There are undoubtedly many business travelers who would at this point utter a hearty “Amen to that!”)
As for Jane Eyre: I tried both reading and listening to it. What defeated me was the arbitrary cruelty toward Jane that was meted out so meanly and so relentlessly. I simply couldn’t take it – at least, not then. Maybe I’ll try again at some future time…especially now that I have revisited the Bronte Parsonage Museum – such a sad, haunted place…

My husband and I got about half way through listening to the spoken word edition of The Sunday Philosophy Club before we left for England. (I can’t recommend Davina Porter’s reading highly enough; she is really superb!) This is the first novel in McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series; I had recently read the fourth entry, The Careful Use of Compliments, and enjoyed in tremendously. It was interesting, if somewhat confusing, to go back to the first book. In our travels around Edinburgh, we located several specific venues where events recounted in The Sunday Philosophy Club took place, most significantly the Usher Hall, which was unfortunately closed for renovation and partially blocked from view. Still, the fall of poor Mark Fraser “from the gods” began to take on a mythic, Icarus-like resonance during the passage of our precious few days in that marvelous city.

I am presently close to finishing my re-reading of The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori. ( The correct pronunciation, apparently, is “Howith.”) I read this novel when it came out in 1998, and I have to say that I have been enjoying it once again, very much. I’m a fan of Robert Barnard’s mysteries and I think this is one of his best. As our coach was entering Haworth, we drove right past the Tandoori! Similar delightful moments related to our reading occurred throughout the trip.

I had deliberately saved Recalled To Life, a nicely compact mass market paperback, to read on the plane. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would still be reading it on the way back! I am a dedicated reader of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels, but I found this one, published here in 1992 and located about half way through the series, to be exceptionally dense and complex. It’s a country house murder, all right, but with an enormous cast of characters; I had trouble keeping track of who was who. Nevertheless, it has all the trademarks of Hill’s wonderful writing. Dalziel in particular is in exceptionally fine fettle here: pushy, coarse, low class – sometimes rather deliberately so – but also capable of compassion and insight. He’s a real brawler, too when the occasion calls for it, which it does several times in this book.

Recalled to Life is named for the title of the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. Quotes at the head of each chapter are taken from the Dickens work. Hill’s novel is indeed about people being “recalled to life” in various ways: released from prison after over two decades, in the case of one character; given a new, if brief, lease on life as in the case of Ellie Pascoe’s aging mother. Towards the conclusion, as Dalziel and Peter Pascoe are heading north on the A 1, Hill treats us to this poignant, eloquent paragraph, as good an illustration as any of the way in which the British are never very far from an awareness of their rich, extraordinary, and sometimes brutal history:

“This was the Great North Road, or had been before modern traffic made it necessary for roads to miss the townships they had once joined. Hatfield they passed, where Elizabeth the First learned of her accession, and Hitchin, where George Chapman translated Homer into English and John Keats into the realms of gold; Biggleswade where the Romans, driving their own road north, forded a river and founded a town; Norman Cross, near which a bronze eagle broods over the memory of eighteen hundred of Napoleon’s dead, not on a field of battle but in a British prison camp; then into what had been Rutland before it was destroyed by little men whose power outstripped their vision by a Scotch mile; and now began the long flat acres of Lincolnshire, and the road ran by Stamford, once the busy capital of the Fens and later badly damaged during the Wars of the Roses; and Grantham, where God said, ‘let Newton be,’ and there was light, though in a later century the same town ushered in some of the country’s most twilit years…”

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Travel Hell: Heathrow, September 12

September 23, 2007 at 10:01 am (To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

Before we left for this trip, I had already been made anxious by some of the stories I was hearing about conditions at Heathrow Airport. Nonetheless, we could hardly believe the chaos that greeted us when we landed there. All around us a seething mass of humanity was simply trying to make its collective way from Point A to Point B. Obstacles were everywhere. The main problem was that if you were changing planes there, as we were, you had to go through security all over again. Then passport control. Yes, these precautions are necessary, given the times we are living in. But there was very little help on offer for the weary traveler. You could stand on line for a seeming eternity and not have any way of knowing if it was the right line to be in.

Having to change terminals made everything doubly difficult. We could not get over the sheer hugeness of this facility. You walk and walk – or get on a bus – and simply hope and pray that you are headed in the right direction. Our flight from Dulles – an airport that was relatively easy to negotiate – had arrived half an hour early. We therefore had two and a half hours to make our connection to Manchester. Nevertheless, we almost missed the plane. We ended up by running down a seemingly endless corridor as we heard the flight being announced. By then I was so overheated, I had taken my jacket off and tied it around my waist. When we got to the gate – as they were getting ready to close it – the jacket was gone. It was part of a mix-and-match ensemble that I had purchased especially for the trip, but of course, there was no time to attempt to retrieve it.

We were being met in Manchester by others on the tour and by our tour leaders, then conveyed by coach to Harrogate. This is a drive of slightly over two hours. Had we missed the flight, worn out and burdened with luggage as we were, we would have had to find our way to Harrogate on our own.

As we boarded our British Midland connection, we were obviously out of breath, exhausted, and angry. At this point, we were assisted by a compassionate flight attended named John Forsythe who brought us glasses of water as soon as we were seated. When I told him about the loss of my jacket, he exclaimed, “I hope your diamond broach was not pinned to the lapel!” Since we were safely aboard by then, I could appreciate the witticism – and did. Of course, we also appreciated his solicitous attention. He chatted us up for a few minutes about our trip. When he heard about its mystery author component, he remarked, “You’d probably be interested to know who my uncle is.” You’re kidding! I thought, it isn’t…Yes, it was! The great veteran author of The Day of the Jackal and many other novels of international intrigue, Frederick Forsythe!

John Forsythe is the kind of person any organization that deals with the public should feel very lucky to have in its employ. Thanks, John! Meanwhile, we were told that the flight would be leaving several minutes late because twenty passengers – twenty! – had not made it through security in time and their bags would have to be removed from the aircraft.

So, as for Heathrow…the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno, rats in a maze, the Turkish prison in Midnight Express… Call it what you will, it was a nightmare. Our advice: avoid going there if at all possible.

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The New Scottish Parliament

September 22, 2007 at 12:55 am (Scotland, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

My head is fairly bursting with tales and images from this recent trip. What to write about first? The story of the new Scottish Parliament is the one that keeps percolating to the surface of my mind; it is filled with drama, conflict, and tragedy.

Scotland is on record as possessing a parliamentary form of government from the early thirteenth century. In 1707, that Parliament was dissolved by the Act of Union; from that time forth, the nation was to be governed by the parliament of the United Kingdom at Westminster. And so it was until the mid-twentieth century, when rising Scottish nationalism provided the impetus for the drive to re-establish a parliament in Scotland, for Scotland. Finally: “In September 1997, a referendum of the Scottish electorate secured a majority in favour of the establishment of a new devolved Scottish Parliament with tax-varying powers in Edinburgh.” (See Wikipedia’s entry on the Scottish Parliament.)

Now we come to the actual building. From a competing field of seventy architects, Enric Miralles of Barcelona emerged as the favorite. The Selection Committee, chaired by Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland and a moving force behind the entire process from its beginning, were enthralled by Miralles’s vision of “…a set of undecipherable images, a landscape of buildings, a tiny city as it were, nestling into the end of the Royal Mile. [Miralles] summarized this image with an extraordinary metaphor. A set of green leaves was connected by twigs to that extraordinary rock outcrop known as Salisbury Crag, an extinct volcano.” (from The Scottish Parliament by Charles Jencks, Scala Publishers Ltd., 2005) An extinct volcano smack in the middle of Edinburgh? Yes! This is the first I’d heard of it. It is a tremendously dramatic feature of the cityscape, as you can see. Miralles intended to build, figuratively and literally, on that drama. In 1999, he stated, “We don’t want to forget that the Scottish Parliament will be in Edinburgh, but will belong to Scotland, to the Scottish land. The Parliament should be able to reflect the land it represents. The building should arise from the sloping base of Arthur’s Seat and arrive into the city almost surging out of the rock.”

For their part, journalists and citizens – read taxpayers – reacted with skepticism, and in some cases, derision, to Miralles’s poetic conception. a reaction that was exacerbated when they got wind of the price tag. In June 1998, an estimate of 62 million pounds was offered; by year 2000, that estimate had been revised upwards to 200 million pounds. (Double that number to get the amount in U.S. dollars.) There were numerous other difficulties, too complex to go into here. At any rate, in June of that year, agreement was reached that allowed the project to go forward. Barely one month later, tragedy struck: Enric Miralles died suddenly of brain cancer. He was 45 years old.

As if that were not sufficiently shocking, Donald Dewar was lost to a brain hemorrhage (what I think we usually refer to here as an aneurysm) in October of that same year. He was 63. Dewar was greatly admired and respected; his funeral was one of the largest in recent memory in Scotland and was attended by many dignitaries, including Prince Charles and Tony Blair.

Work went ahead on the building of the new parliament. It was supposed to be completed in 2001; it actually opened in October of 2004. The final accounting was estimated at a whopping 414 million pounds. [What I have offered here is only a brief outline of an very complex story. Click on the Wikipedia link above for a more detailed recounting of the events herein described.]

My husband and I had the same reaction when we toured the parliament building this past Monday. We began by disliking it to the point of dismissing it, only to change our minds completely by the time the tour was over. The oddly configured spaces, the light pouring in at unexpected angles, the distinctive use of building materials – I particularly liked the silver granite – served to change completely our perception of this extraordinary edifice.

Christopher Wren’s eldest son and heir, Christopher Wren, Jr., wrote one of the most famous epitaphs of all time for his famous architect father:
“Lector, Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice”
[“Reader, if you seek his monument, look around”].

Standing in awe in Scotland’s astonishing new Parliament Building, I could not help thinking, here is the monument for Enric Miralles. Who knows what additional marvels we might have had from this visionary young architect had death not claimed him in such a cruel, untimely fashion.

I’d like to close this post by quoting from a speech that Donald Dewar gave in 1999. The occasion was the opening of the New Scottish Parliament, which was housed in temporary quarters at the time, pending the completion of its new home:

“This is about more than our politics and our laws,” he told the audience, which included Queen Elizabeth II. “This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves. In the quiet moments today, we might hear some echoes of the past: the shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards; the speak of the Mearns, with its soul in the land; the discourse of the enlightenment, when Edinburgh and Glasgow were a light held to the intellectual life of Europe; the wild cry of the pipes; and back to the distant cries of the battles of Bruce and Wallace.”

[Source: Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2001]

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We return from Britain, somewhat the worse for wear, but still game!

September 21, 2007 at 9:03 am (Anglophilia, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

swaledale-web-1.jpg I am happy – well thrilled, really – to report that the beauty of Yorkshire still has the power to enthrall; the history, likewise, to fascinate. But beware – there is danger in the Dales! That is, if you are a complete klutz like me and go climbing fences in search of a better vantage point from which to take a picture of sheep in a field. I mean, I really do love these Swaledale sheep, with their black faces and sturdy, chunky bodies.

swaledale3.jpg What happened was this: I thought I was ascending a solid bit of ground; as it happened, long grasses were concealing a deep hole. I stepped into it and went, as the British would say, arse over teakettle against a wood fence. I removed several layers of skin in patches from the back of my right hand, but an even more interesting thing happened to my left arm. I thought I had scraped it because it was stinging so acutely, but when I took a good look at it, welts the size of dimes were rapidly forming and spreading. These eventually resolved themselves into a constellation of small red dots, in which the stinging power of the outraged vegetation upon which I had fallen was concentrated. The result was exquisite pain, fortunately short-lived. (Thoughts on the identity of this nefarious attack plant, anyone?)

I owe thanks to several women in the tour group who quickly surrounded me and helped me get back on my (albeit shaky) feet. I’m still not sure who they were – we were still new to one another and my glasses had been knocked off in the melee – but I am very grateful nonetheless.

It will be a few days before our own pictures get posted here, as my husband, who is in charge of all things photographic, came home with a very nasty cold and is presently indisposed, to say the least. As I said, somewhat the worse for wear…

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