Sequels make me anxious…but White Nights by Ann Cleeves is a winner!

July 29, 2009 at 1:01 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

white I am happy to report that with the second entry in the Shetland Quartet, Ann Cleeves has put to rest my sequel anxieties. White Nights is as worthy a follow-up to Raven Black as one could hope for. We find ourselves once again in the Shetland Islands, at the height of summer, a time when at this northern latitude, the sun never really sets but lingers, late at night and in the early morning,  just at the line of the horizon.  The locals call it the “simmer dim,”  and the effect is eerie, sometimes producing erratic behavior on the part of natives and visitors alike. And it’s hard to imagine what could be more erratic than the appearance, at the opening of an art exhibition, of a distraught stranger who, without warning, sinks to his knees and bursts into loud and piteous weeping.

Detective Jimmy Perez is among those staring at this singular display in shocked silence. He has come to the opening with Fran Hunter, one of the exhibiting artists. Jimmy first met Fran, a newly single mother, in the course of the investigation that takes place in Raven Black. He is now in love with her. This affair of the heart is described by Cleeves with great restraint and poignancy;  the reader is made to share Perez’s urgent desire for its success.

Things proceed in a straight line from the bizarre disruption of the art show to a murder that is discovered soon afterward. Jimmy’s slow, methodical approach to crime solving seems congruent with his milieu, but it drives Roy Taylor , thee senior investigating officer  from Inverness, slightly crazy.  In fact, for Taylor, Shetland itself  is a negative effect:

“Shetland was unnatural, he thought. The spooky half-light which never disappeared really freaked him out. That’s why he’d slept so poorly the night before. Perhaps it was the extreme of the dark winters and sleepless summers that made the people so odd. He could never live there.

But for those who do live there and have a shared history there, Shetland is a magical place. The action in Raven Black culminates at the annual fire festival called Up Helly Aa. This was completely new to me, and fascinating.

UpHelly Aa, 1973: the burning of the galley. Photo by Anne Burgess

Up Helly Aa, 1973: the burning of the galley. Photo by Anne Burgess

Older traditions than this still survive. Kenny Thomson, a farmer in the tiny village of Biddista, is one of my favorite characters in the novel. In this passage, he anticipates a summer ritual:

“He enjoyed the sense of occasion that came with clipping the sheep; it was one of the days that marked midsummer – everyone walking across the hill together in line, pushing the beasts ahead of them until they reached the dyke, then walking them down towards the croft.  It took him back to his childhood, when there’d been more communal work. He liked the banter and the edge of competition as everyone tried to get the fleeces off whole, not nicking the flesh, but keeping up the pace so they weren’t at it all day. And then in the evening they”d all come into the house for beer and a few drams, maybe some music.

There is something autumnal in this description; one has the sense of yet another time-honored way of life threatened with extinction.


In 2007, as a feature of the Smithsonian Tour Mystery Lover’s England and Scotland, we met Ann Cleeves twice. First, she participated in a panel discussion along with Stuart Pawson and Martin Edwards. (Later, all three joined us for dinner – most convivial, and great fun!)

Left to right: Stuart Pawson, Ann Cleeves, and Martin Edwards

Left to right: Stuart Pawson, Ann Cleeves, and Martin Edwards

Cleeves met us again for lunch in Morpeth, a town in Northumberland. She took this occasion to tell us how the inspiration for the Shetland Quartet came about. If memory serves, it had to do with a bird watching expedition to the islands.


(I had the pleasure of encountering Ann Cleeves yet again, at Bouchercon last October.)

Our group then resumed the journey north, to Edinburgh. As always happens in England, there were many places I wanted to stop, but there wasn’t the time to do so. Bamburgh Castle, Alnwick and its fabulous gardens, the iconic Angel of the North, which we whipped past in the bus.

Angel of the North

Angel of the North

I hope to return one day, to see these things up close and at leisure. I hope also to go to Lindisfarne.  Gateshead and Newcastle Upon Tyne are also of interest to me.  I felt deeply immersed in those regions while reading Jenny Uglow’s  biography of  Thomas Bewick.

Northumberland itself has many beautiful towns and villages. Ann Cleeves lives there and loves it; it’s easy to see why.

The windswept coast of Northumberland

The windswept coast of Northumberland

As often happened, England staged precisely the right weather in order to heighten the drama. That’s Ros, our intrepid  Blue Badge guide, in the blue dress.

Here’s some video footage of the Up Helly Aa fire festival:


I’ve wandered somewhat far afield from the subject of White Nights, so I want to reiterate in closing what a wonderful read this novel is. I suggest you begin with Raven Black, the first volume of the Shetland Quartet. Then read White Nights. Needless to say, I anticipate these two with pleasure:

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Best Nonfiction of 2007

December 17, 2007 at 2:52 pm (Best of 2007, books, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

engraver2.jpg Nature’s Engraver by Jenny Uglow. I feel indebted to Uglow for introducing me to the life and art of Thomas Bewick. In the process, she gives us a meticulous re-creation of life in the Tyneside region of England in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. I am always grateful to authors who transport me in this way to another time and place; in this world, this is the only form of time travel vouchsafed to us .

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[Thomas Bewick, and two of his engravings]


On our trip in September, we passed through Tyneside on our way to Edinburgh. We stopped briefly in the lovely village of Warkworth in Northumberland warkworth_village_and_church.jpg , where we had the pleasure of once again meeting with Ann Cleeves. Finally, we stopped briefly on the windswept coast, then boarded the bus once again. We raced past two places I would dearly loved to have explored: Bamburgh Castle and the amazing Angel of the North

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. There is much to see along the A1, which closely follows the historic Great North Road, described so memorably by Reginald Hill in Recalled To Life.

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Ass you can see, a storm was bearing down us. Shortly after we boarded the bus, the heavens opened up – real Wuthering Heights weather!


Now, back to the books:

salem2.jpg Salem Witch Judge by Eve LaPlante. Not only a rich, illuminating biography of Samuel Sewall, but also a provocative meditation on this country’s Puritan heritage.

indian-summer2.jpg Indian Summer by Alex von Tunzelmann. The story of England’s grand adventure – and at times, misadventure – on the subcontinent. The author’s account is peopled with an enormous cast of characters, many of whom prove capable of astonishingly bizarre and perverse behavior. In particular, for those of us who were raised to venerate Winston Churchill and Mahatma Ghandi, there are some disconcerting revelations here.

uncommon.jpg And finally – the nonfiction book that was the most just plain fun to read, providing as it did great dollops of delicious literary gossip: Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe.

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Haworth and the Brontes

October 11, 2007 at 2:03 am (Anglophilia, books, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

brush_bronte_wideweb__470x3500.jpg I thought that I might be less than thrilled to be visiting the Bronte Parsonage for the second time in two years, but in fact, I got much more out of this particular visit. This was partly due to the presence of Robert Barnard, one of my favorite mystery authors. dscn0381.JPG For Barnard, the family history of the Brontes and their immortal works of literature are a passionate avocation. He has written a biography of Emily Bronte and served as president of the Bronte Society. He delivered a talk on his favorite subject in the cramped basement of the Bronte Parsonage Museum. dscn0384.JPG The talk, which centered on the efforts of the society to secure documents, especially letters, relating to the Brontes, was utterly fascinating. He also informed his rapt audience that it was due to the tireless efforts of the society that a previously unknown photograph of Charlotte Bronte was unearthed.


The Parsonage retains its power to haunt. Legends swirl around the Bronte family; recently, at least one biography – The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller – has sought to cut through the occasionally misleading (and often distracting) aura of mystery that surrounds their lives. Yet how could their story be viewed as anything but tragic? In 1821, the year after she had given birth to Anne, her sixth child, Maria Bronte died an agonizing death from cancer. Of the six children she had borne, none made it to age forty.

patrick.jpg Poor Reverend Patrick Bronte – predeceased by not only his wife but all six of his children! It would test anyone’s faith…

church.jpg We went into the Church of St. Michael and All Angels, where Patrick Bronte preached (Only the tower actually dates from his time there), then walked around the village. Haworth is actually quite beautiful. The high street is quite literally high, located at the summit of a rather steep hill. (Detective Charlie Peace describes his arduous ascent of that hill in Barnard’s novel The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori. (This is, IMHO, one of his best books.) dscn0392.JPG dscn0391.JPGYou can see by these pictures that the lush countryside of the Dales can be clearly seen from the center of town; this view down Haworth’s high street is one of my favorites in Yorkshire – well, one of many, of course. And the “old timey” apothecary shop is a surprise and a delight. dscn0398.JPG dscn0396.JPG dscn0395.JPG

dscn0397.JPG Finally – here’s Yours Truly leaning on this beloved symbol of Old England. As I was preparing for my first Yorkshire sojourn in 2005 – my first trip back to the “old country” in twenty years – several people assured me that those red phone booths were gone. What did they know, eh? There’s a saying, “Trust but verify.” Sometimes I think it should be “Don’t trust – verify, by going and seeing for yourself!”

Robert Barnard accompanied us to lunch; I was lucky enough to be seated near him. His conversation was very frank and open, regarding his fellow crime writers; he knows and has great regard for P.D. James and Peter Robinson. On the subject his personal history, he was similarly forthright, telling us that his childhood was deeply affected by his parents’ unhappy marriage. I appreciated his directness on this and other subjects.

dscn0378.JPG Tour manager Moira Black, study leader Carol Kent, and Robert Barnard

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Middleham Castle; or, ‘There’s nothing like a good ruin!’ Then, on to Hawes

October 4, 2007 at 6:52 pm (Anglophilia, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

p1000899.JPG On our first day out and about in the Dales, we visited several small cities and villages in Wensleydale. We went first to Ripon, about which I have already written. Next, we arrived at Middleham, where we took in the magnificent ruins of the town’s eponymous castle. (I am always looking for an excuse to use that word!) This was Richard the Third’s boyhood home. The castle’s keep dates from the twelfth century and was at one time the largest in the north of England.

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My husband and I both felt that the town itself was as great an attraction as the castle. Middleham has in abundance those virtues commonly associated with the beautiful towns and villages of the Yorkshire Dales: buildings all constructed from the same pale gray limestone that acts as such a perfect backdrop for the profusion of flowers in window boxes, hanging baskets, pots, and gardens.

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The town is situated on a hillside between two rivers, the Cover and the Ure. (Rivers are a dynamic, energetic presence in many parts of Yorkshire, adding greatly to the beauty of the landscape.) Middleham is additionally a center for the breeding and training of racehorses, an industry originally founded by the monks of nearby Jervaulx Abbey. (The Abbey, founded in 1156 by monks who came over from France in the wake of the Norman Conquest, is yet another picturesque ruin, but one, alas, that we did not have time to take in. There is an absolutely astonishing wealth of things to see and do in Yorkshire!)

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Leaving Middleham, we rode through yet more gorgeous countryside until we arrived at Hawes, another attractive market town which is situated just above the southern bank of the River Ure. A visit to the Ropemaker of Hawes was well worth while, as was a stroll down the High Street, which featured a number of attractive shops.

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Hawes is home to the Dales Countryside Museum as well as the famously delicious Wensleydale Cheese, cheesemaking being yet another enterprise begun by the resourceful monks of Jervaulx Abbey. (Item of local interest: I’ve seen Wensleydale Cheese on sale at Roots Market in Clarksville.)

p1000915.JPG These little citizens of Hawes gave us an especially warm welcome!

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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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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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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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