Monday, January 23, 2017

Introducing Alison Taylor

Annamaria on Monday



I met Alison Taylor first online, thanks to our mutual friend Mike Linane (who makes a cameo appearance in my Idol of Mombasa, as the Deputy Treasurer of British East Africa).  Last year's Icelandic Noir give me an opportunity to spend time in person with both of them.  Born in Yorkshire to Scottish Parents, Alison studied at the University of St. Andrews and has taught English at the His School level and as a second language in Finland and Switzerland.  Today she is introducing us to the background behind her debut novel.  Take it away, Alison.



Places often inspire novels, and this is definitely the case with my first book, Sewing the Shadows Together. Portobello, the seaside suburb of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, is the setting for much of the book and is where the idea for the book first came to me. 


Portobello is a beautiful small town on the Firth of Forth, with a wide sandy beach edged by a long promenade. When I was a child I spent my summer holidays there because my grandparents lived in a grey-stone Victorian villa close to the prom. It was a very special place for me; I loved playing on the beach and learnt to swim in the red-stone public baths. Later, after university and teacher training, I was thrilled when my first teaching post was at Portobello High School. Then after my sons were born I lived up in Edinburgh, but we still visited my granny every weekend and always walked along the beach, whatever the weather. Looking out over the water to the huge sky, smelling the salt air and feeling the wind on my face always made me feel at home.
Then something happened that has cast a shadow over the name of Portobello to this day. In July 1983 a five-year-old girl disappeared while playing on the prom. Her body wasn’t found until twelve days later, three hundred miles away. She was one of the victims of the serial killer, Robert Black.
In the days before she was found the atmosphere in Portobello was charged with fear and bewilderment. The whole town was on edge, desperately hoping the little girl would be found. Rumours and suspicions ran through the community, and even my granny’s garden and shed were searched by the police,
Like many others I was deeply affected by the tragedy, even though I didn’t know the family. I could identify with them so much as my sons were about the same age and we had often played near the place where she disappeared. I wondered then how her family and friends would ever be able to come to terms with what had happened.
 And so the seeds of Sewing the Shadows Together were sown. In it the lives of Tom, the brother, and Sarah, the best friend, of a teenage girl murdered in Portobello are scarred by the tragedy for many years afterwards.
I didn’t actually write the book for more than thirty years, as I was teaching, bringing up my family and I also moved to Switzerland, where I now live. However, the story was gradually forming in the back of my mind and when I stopped working full-time I eventually wrote it.



The book opens with Tom walking along Portobello prom. He has returned to his birthplace after many years in South Africa, where his family emigrated after the tragedy in an attempt to escape their memories. At a school reunion he meets Sarah again and when the man convicted of the murder is proved innocent, they are drawn closer together as suspicion falls on family and friends in the search for the real killer.
Other places and events also influenced the story. A few years ago I made a very moving journey to the Outer Hebrides, the island chain off the north-west coast of Scotland. The ashes of a dear friend of mine were scattered in a simple ceremony on Bonnie Prince Charlie beach on the island of Eriskay. The memory of the family gathering silently, silhouetted against the setting sun, is one which will always remain etched in my memory.



Without my really being aware of it, this incident became part of my book, as Tom goes to Eriskay to scatter his mother’s ashes on the island where she was born. The wild beauty of the Western Isles, with its long beaches, biting winds and empty landscape, combined with the stoical charm of the people I met there, made a huge impression on me. The atmosphere there helped me to form the character of Tom, and this section of the book, where he discovers dark secrets about his family’s past, is one where the setting perfectly reflects the action.



Whenever I go back to Scotland I walk along Portobello prom, like Tom does at the beginning of Sewing the Shadows Together, and even as I write this, sitting in Switzerland, I yearn to go back to there or to one of the Scottish islands. My heart will always be in Scotland, but when I’m here in Switzerland I walk the streets and the shores of the country I love through my writing and reading. 


                  

Saturday, January 21, 2017

There's a New "Q" in New York Town


Jeff—Saturday

“So, what should I write about this week,” he said.

“The subway,” came bouncing back from his muse.  “The new Q-line.”


For what seems a decade we’ve been skirting around the massive construction project at the bottom of our Upper Eastside street that had necessitated leveling a couple of classic shops on East 72nd Street, and destroyed the business of several others.

The plywood barriers, construction trailers, five lanes narrowed to two, cranes, hardhat worksite dictates, and posted public relations assurances that the new Second Avenue subway would open on time had become part of the background to the neighborhood.


Then suddenly, on January 1, it opened!  Just as promised and (allegedly) within budget.  The streets were quiet, clean, and uncluttered again, while through an elegant, unobtrusive entrance streams of folks went in and out at all times of the day.


Until then, they’d had to march four blocks south and two west to catch the Lexington Avenue 6 train, a notoriously mobbed line running up and down the east side of Manhattan.

Now they had an alternative, one connecting the eastside with the west, as the first phase of construction promised to bring the same sort of relief to other neighborhoods.


On Wednesday night I had my first chance to use the Q. In two stops, and fifteen minutes door-to-door, we arrived at Carnegie Hall.  Thursday night we had Knicks basketball tickets and made it to Madison Square Garden in four stops and less than twenty minutes.  If we’d wanted to get off in the theater district, it would have been but three stops.

New York lost to Washington.

Bottom line: bye-bye taxis and Uber, and hello MTA.  Whoever came up with this new line deserves extraordinary credit for expanding and enhancing mass transit use.

But wait, there’s more. Descent into the bowels of Manhattan at my stop involves a six-story escalator ride down to the platform below. It’s a surreal experience, offering an elevator for the vertigo inclined.

It's a long way down...and if you want to ride, click on the film clip below
video

But what will blow your mind is the artwork adorning the new station walls (at 63rd, 72nd, 86th, and 96th Streets). It’s a museum worthy experience.  Here’s what the MTA has to say about its artwork.
Commissioned by MTA Arts & Design, the Second Avenue Subway’s Phase 1 artworks together comprise the largest permanent art installation in New York history. These art installations represent the vibrance and cultural diversity of New York—a city continually on the move.
Artists
Jean Shin – 63rd Street: Elevated, 2017, Laminated glass, glass mosaic, and ceramic tile
Jean Shin’s installation, Elevated uses archival photographs of the 2nd and 3rd Avenue Elevated train to create compositions in ceramic tile, glass mosaic, and laminated glass. The imagery is manipulated and re-configured and each station level provides a unique focus, palette and material. At the 3rd Avenue escalator, the view is filled with ceramic tile depicting construction beams and the cranes that dismantled the El in the 1940s. At the 3rd Avenue mezzanine, a mosaic reveals the sky where the train had previously been present, and features images of people from the era in this neighborhood transformation. The platform level features semitransparent and reflective materials showing vintage scenes of the neighborhood, while enabling contemporary viewers to see themselves in the cityscape of the past.

Vik Muniz – 72nd Street: Perfect Strangers, 2017, Glass mosaic and laminated glass
Perfect Strangers by Vik Muniz features more than three-dozen characters created in mosaic and installed throughout the mezzanine and entrance areas, populating the station with colorful images of all types of New Yorkers. The main station entrance features a laminated glass canopy at street level depicting a flock of birds, bringing art and nature to the busy location. Within the expanse of the mezzanine concourse, the life size figures provide bursts of color and visual interest and an opportunity for new discovery with every trip through the station.



Chuck Close – 86th Street: Subway Portraits, 2017, Glass and ceramic mosaic, ceramic tile
Chuck Close in Subway Portraits has created twelve large-scale works that are based on the artist’s painstakingly detailed photo-based portrait paintings and prints. His various painting techniques have been interpreted in ten works as mosaic, and in two as ceramic tile. The artworks measure close to nine feet high and are placed on the walls at the station entrances and the mezzanine concourse. The people portrayed are cultural figures that have frequently been his subjects, including Philip Glass, Zhang Huan, Kara Walker, Alex Katz, Cecily Brown, Cindy Sherman, and Lou Reed, as well as two distinct self-portraits.


Sarah Sze – 96th Street: Blueprint for a Landscape, 2017, Porcelain tile
Blueprint for a Landscape by Sarah Sze profoundly impacts the look of the station as her imagery is applied directly to nearly 4300 unique porcelain wall tiles, spanning approximately 14,000 square feet. The designs feature familiar objects – sheets of paper, scaffolding, birds, trees, and foliage – caught up in a whirlwind velocity that picks up speed and intensity as the composition unfolds throughout the station with references to energy fields and wind patterns. Each entrance features a different shade of blue and a blueprint-style vector line design, a visual theme that is integrated with the architecture.


I guess the bottom line to all this is simply that, despite everything we sense as wrong with our government, there are some things it gets right.  The Second Avenue Q line is surely that. Bravo New York City.



And thank you, BZ, for the suggested topic.


—Jeff

Friday, January 20, 2017

So how is your attention span ?


Is technology making us stupid? Well more stupid? Not a day goes past without reading something that says Google is making us daft and the amount of social networking that goes on means that we have forgotten how to talk to friends.  We would rather chat to somebody invisible on the other side of the world that we don’t know rather than nip round for a coffee. Go into any restaurant and watch couples out for  a meal together, not speaking just scrolling through their phones as if there might be something more interesting going on there.
                                   
I grew up in a house without a phone.  How on earth did we survive?  I can count on the fingers of one hand the times we really needed a phone- a quick sprint to old Mrs Jefferies and run the gauntlet of her vicious budgie Polly- or Dad was sent out on his bike to the nearest phone box.
People were better organised in those days, you kept to a timetable in your life.  Gran always expected us to appear at her door at two o’clock on a Sunday and we went swimming on a Monday night. Mum worked late on a Thursday and  that was the night we got our weekly bar of chocolate ( Fry’s chocolate cream).  Nowadays people phone each other from inside Walmart/Asda and say ‘I’m at the fish I, meet you at the bananas in five minutes.’  Don’t get me started with people who walk around Walmart/Asda in their pyjamas.

                                           
                                                        why?

Don’t get me started ( or started again as I’ve not stopped yet) on folk who walk dogs … well the dogs run around and the owner stands in the path on their phone, talking crap….  
This condition, the angst of what technology might be  doing to us could be referred to as ‘neuro anxiety’. Folk like me struggle with new gadgets and like to take solace in the argument that it’s not good for us.  However, in 370 BC Plato used the same argument saying that the concept of the written word was dangerous because people would stop using their memories.

So let’s look at a few examples.
Goldfish are now thought to possess a rather impressive nine second attention span but before we feel smug about that, the incessant bombardment of information and the need for instant answers has seriously impacted our ability to focus.  We now have an attention span less than a goldfish.And that’s official.
                                         
                                                  He may be as bright as his shiny scales.


Eight seconds.

And getting shorter.  Microsoft proved that in a 2015 study using electro encephalograms.  I can understand how they manage that experiment on their Canadian human subjects but  how do they manage that on goldfish? I was  then wondering if a Canadian on a mobile phone or a goldfish has a better chance of following the plot of Midsummer Murders.  
                                              
                                                          
                                           In last week's episode, the victim was killed by cricket balls
                                           being fired from a bowling machine. The best use of a cricket
                                           ball I have ever seen.

In the US, the centre of disease prevention has shown that the percentage of children with ADHD has more than doubled since 1990.  I suppose a rubber stamp on the report card might be in order. ‘They are easily distracted, must pay more attention.’  I got that a lot at school, I didn’t have SDHD just some boring teachers….so the smart money might be on the fact that technology might be responsible for this.
                                              
It’s also possible that gaming activates the nucleus accumbens in the brain, the pleasure producing dopamine centre.  Men are now dying after excessive bouts of gaming.  They don’t eat, they don’t sleep  they just game away and die of dehydration.  Their brains on post mortem show similar signs to any other addiction.
The key word in the above paragraph is ‘men.’   Couldn’t find any reference anywhere to female fatality while gaming.  So these men who game for days on end, have they ever met or had any physical contact with a lady person? Any person? Even a Canadian with a short attention span? 

More interestingly German neuro scientist Manfred Sptizer has pointed out that with numbers and facts and map routes only a touch away, the human race is heading for ‘digital dementia’.  There is a lack of true interaction with the subject concerned and that affects the memory.  I recall Hugh Laurie saying that  while filming House, he was a medical expert on something for 30 minutes,  then he couldn’t remember a thing once the director had called ‘cut’. I do wonder about people attending concerts and filming it on their phone (and indeed watching the filming) instead of watching what they are filming  - the show.  And that is a different interactive experience.  However, on the positive side, it can be  relaxing and comforting to know that all that other stuff, all that mundane detritus of life that nobody can be bothered remembering,  is safely stored away in a  digital recording, ready to ping when it needs to be brought to your attention. 
                                            
                                                   Aha! Who do we have here??
Facebook however, while I am sure it does work for some people, has a lot of negatives attached.  One case study shows that Facebooking between mother and daughter produces the stress hormone cortisol whereas face to face reaction between the two produce the feel good hormone oxytocin. And for mankind there has always been a reaction for a child to turn its head towards a returning parent.  That is now starting to change with children fixed on their phone or their tablet instead of looking up when somebody enters the living room. ( good for a plot if you think about it to a deadly, Hammer horror type of conclusion).  That fascination with tablets etc,  and the rise of Facebook could be leading to the human race losing their ability to face read signals, those little nuances of stress and anxiety, secondary information on how the news you are giving is being perceived and the early signal that  it might be better to change tack or rephrase before someone bursts into tears or you get a slap in the kisser.

More interesting to us is maybe, is  the Norwegian experiment which proved something I guess all authors know – that reading off a screen is a very different experience to reading off paper.  The brain interprets the information differently.  Reading a good old fashioned novel, the reader absorbs it and sees the word on the page as somebody would looking at an old fashioned map.  The shaping of the word and the lettering is important and it feeds to a very deep understanding of the text being displayed.  The brain takes time to soak it all up, and retain it. How often has an editor said ‘that paragraph is too dense and too bulky’, ‘the dialogue is too sparse.’ Not only is it not reading right, it doesn’t look right.  People who read digitally skim read, their eyes tend to hunt for key words and can very often miss the deeper, more subtle meaning of what the writer is trying to convey.
                                    
  So in case this blog is too subtle because you are reading it on screen, I will summarise.

Men who spend all their money and time gaming are less intelligent than goldfish. This also applies to Canadians. ( Just to be clear, I mean that rule also applies to Canadians not that Canadians are less intelligent than goldfish!!)
 Women who need a feel-good hormone should stay away from their laptop, eat chocolate and roll up on the settee with a furry dog and a good book (not on Kindle).  That should provide all the endorphins needed.  If you want to add a wee bit of adrenaline into the mix – read a crime novel.

Here's one being published in February....


                                                    
Caro Ramsay  20 th Jan 2017