Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Best Laid Plans …

OK, let me just say that I was not intending to do a picture-heavy blog this week, even though my trip to Iceland was BRILLIANT (and Iceland Noir wasn’t bad, either …)

But then between getting back from Reykjavík and sitting down to scribble, this happened:

And no, the dark mark you can see towards the right-hand side of the sliced bit of finger is not muck, it’s where I got fed up of the damn thing splitting open again and stitched it back together myself over the kitchen table.

So, that decided it. Pretty pictures and captions it is.

For a start, Iceland is a quirky kind of place. Either this is a sculpture making a profound comment on the strictures of the modern middle-class working male, or it’s the Icelandic take on fitting someone with concrete boots and sending them to sleep with the fishes.

Quite a few of my fellow blog-mates were in attendance, including (l to r) Jeff Siger, Stan Trollip’s Better Half, Mette, Stan himself, me, Noir attendee author Susan Moody, and Stan’s other Better Half, Michael Sears.

The Iceland Noir events were very well-attended, including this one (l to r) with Quentin Bates moderating the New Blood panel for first-time authors Sarah Ward, David Swatling and Sverrir Berg Steinarsson.

They may look like native British ponies, but they’re really Viking horses and they wear their hair long so you can’t see the horns.

My wonderful four-legged friend for the day went by the name of ‘Lucka’ (with apologies for probable incorrect spelling). She was full of beans and I did indeed get to experience the Icelandic horse’s unique gait, the todt.

Everybody takes pretty pictures of the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s geothermally heated spa, but the builder in me was fascinated by the materials used — slices of lava turned into the most amazing bricks. Imagine a feature wall made out of those at home.

The Seljalandsfoss waterfall is one you can walk behind. And yes, the spray was very wet and very cold …

… Better to admire it from a distance!

In order to go snowmobiling, we first had to get to the snow, and that involved travelling along a rocky track up onto the glacier that would have defeated a lesser vehicle than this Nissan Super Jeep.

Initially, the view of the Sólheimajökull glacier (and no, I have no idea how to pronounce it even after several attempts) was stunning. Then as we went higher a bit of a blizzard hit. Still, only three people managed to flip their Lynx snowmobiles over. When they told you to lean, guys, they weren’t kidding!

Yes, that is me under the fetching balaclava. And no, I wasn’t going to take any more than that off for a picture. It was flippin’ freezin’ up there. (Just in case you thought I was simply lollygagging, I’ll have you know I was engaged in serious research at this point …)

The most amazing ice bridge on the Sólheimajökull glacier.

Yet another photogenic waterfall — Skógafoss this time. By the time we reached this it was about ten past three in the afternoon, and the shadows were already lengthening but the light was beautiful.

What a stylish trio! (L to r) Barbara, Better Half of Jeff Siger, Annamaria Alfieri, and Jeff himself.

Our hotel, the Marina (it was located on more of a dockside than a marina, but who’s arguing?) was a converted paint factory. I loved the signs like this one in my no-cat-swinging-permitted ensuite shower room.

This life-size (ish) statue was indeed outside the loos in the hotel bar. No jokes about wood, if you please!

Even the airport security people at Keflavik had a sense of humour. Now that must be a first …

Sorry to be leaving. Determined to go back.

And yes, I did finally get to see the Northern Lights, hurrah! Sadly, I was relying on my smartphone camera which did not prove up to the task of capturing the eerie green glow for posterity. Just have to go back again with the full kit.

This week’s Word of the Week is aurora borealis, from the Latin aurora meaning sunrise, or Aurora who was the Roman goddess of dawn, and boreas being Greek for the north wind. The name was first used by Galileo in the early sixteen-hundreds. The meteorological phenomena are caused by charged particles coming down into the atmosphere and causing optical emissions. They are, of course, otherwise known as the Northern Lights or, in Icelandic, norðurlósin*.

*Thanks to our own Yrsa for the translation.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Or So I Hope.

I’m back at the farm for a couple of days before heading off next week to Minneapolis, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. If it seems I’m possessed with seeking out Icelandic weather, you’d be only partly right.  I committed to signings in those cities before I realized how Iceland-like they could be.  But no active volcanoes. 

Or so I hope.

The closest I’ve been to a volcano since returning to the US a day or so ago was my reaction on seeing that the folks diligently working on my barn decided to update the look from 1842 Amish to 1970s suburbia.  But that will work itself out.

Ancient Iceland, not New Jersey

Or so I hope.

I also noticed that the Greek people once again united in a 24-hour crippling general strike to protest their government’s continuing austerity measures. But I sense a different tone in these demonstrations.  The protestors seem defeated, as if they realize their efforts are useless, falling on deaf ears.  Perhaps that’s because their government insists that, even though the people don’t see it, things are getting better.  

Or so I hope.

And back here in the US there is talk of new Presidential runs by old Presidential candidates. Imagine the great (un)reality television that will make over the next two years.  It may even drive the Kardashians out of the national consciousness. 

Or so I hope.

It’s been a hectic, fanciful few weeks, bouncing from Bouchercon in Long Beach, California, to Iceland Noir in Reykjavik, to celebrating Thanksgiving with my daughter and her family in their new Long Island home.  Now it’s time to jump back into the real world and try my best to make it better.  Starting with the barn.

Or so I hope.


Friday, November 28, 2014

The Queen Mary

As the advert says ,'I should have gone to Iceland'.
But instead I went to San Diego to look at the zoo.
And it took us 50 hours to get home.
The super duper Dreamliner aircraft with its high spec non jet lag cabin pressure, its electric windows ( darkening not opening) and state of the art in flight entertainment system is a fab plane. So new, it sat on the runway in its wrapper.
It is the most fuel efficient plane ever manufactured.
Because it doesn't actually fly.
It sits on the ground and looks pretty.

The plane we eventually got in (three airports later) had a special  turbulence seeking feature.
The luggage is making its way to Scotland by independent means.
Like I said, should have gone to Iceland.
So here is a blog from a free wheeling jet lagged mind, 

I'm from the part of Glasgow right on the Clyde (well all of Glasgow is on the the Clyde but you get my drift)
My Grandad , as a very young man, riveted bits of the Queen Mary together. My mum, years later worked for the computer that made her valves, all the aunts and uncles worked in shipbuilding somewhere. My dad designed some of the cranes that Browns, Kvaerner, Clyde Ship Builders ordered. Most of them are still in operation.
In China.
So this was  my favourite picture of the QM. Still on the Clydeside. If that ship could think, she's ruminating on her retirement, wishing for the good weather of Long Beach! 
See the wee guy in the foreground, umbrella, running to get out the rain.

Fred Astaire was a famous passenger.

Liberace was another

Yip, I had a shot in a Captain Kirk kind of way.
                                                             Full steam ahead Scotty,

Oh No captain, the engines canny take it

Then for some reason there was a picture of David Niven doing a Highland fling.

During the war, she was painted grey, and became known as the 'Grey Ghost'. The exhibition at her current Loch Beach site naturally emphasises the heroism and the gallantry of  sailings where  16500 men crammed onto a boat built to hold 2000 passengers and 1000 crew. I've been told since that there were many fatalities from overcrowding, some from of crush injury  due to so many being in such a confined space.  That might be anecdotal, the actual reports still seem to be classified.. 

This report of a soldier on board talks about being more afraid of the Scottish weather than the enemy submarines.  The QM was rigged with a degaussing coil to prevent magnetic mines. She zigged zagged her way to make her difficult to track and her sheer speed made her difficult to pursue.

One night, off the coast of Scotland, she was hit by a rogue wave
That was December 1942, She had 16,082 American soldiers on board. which still stands as a record for most passengers transported on one vessel.
She had sailed 700 miles of the New York to GB trip when the wave hit.. It was 28 metres high, and went onto her broad side. The ship rolled 52 degrees. Three more and she would have been over.
A writer chappie called Paul Gallico  read about it many years later and wrote a book inspired by it.
The Poseidon Adventure

This does bring tears to the eye. After all that horror of war, the QM sailing into New York in the darkness. Grey painted, you can imagine her almost invisible in the night air - then they see the Statue of Liberty  lights flashing 'Welcome home' in Morse code.

But this was my favourite story. A young boy, a third class passenger, got into a bit of trouble in the swimming pool and was rescued by - Johnny Weissmuller!

Second class cabin

First class

Third class

Enjoying the sun in her retirement.
When these boats were launched the bow wave caused havoc down the Clyde into Renfrew and beyond. It  flooded everywhere. Kids ( of all ages - my grandparents included ) used to climb on high things on the day. They  leaned out of windows of upstairs neighbours in the tenements and enjoyed every minute of the chaos. Much of the old cine film of these launches is on U tube and worth viewing.
I've read that 18 drag chains acted as the breaks in the QM  and they had to widen the river to give her more of a diagonal to cross on at her launch - otherwise they feared she would ram the riverside further down.

All ship shape captain.

The radio room with radio sets from different eras.

All that wood was covered in leather to protect it while she was 'grey'

Many more crew died than passengers on board. Their cause of death is well documented and listed.
The ghosts that are aboard now don't correlate with any incidents as they are listed.

I found this plaque naming the engineering works where my mum worked the comptometer machine. Weird!

Clark Cable.

First class dining.

Some facts -  'born'  3 April 1929,  Build: John Brown and Company, Clydebank, Scotland
Her hull number was 534. Launched  26 September 1934. Maiden voyage: 27 May 1936
She captured the Blue Riband in August 1936, lost it in 1937, recaptured it in 1938 and retained it until 1952 when the SS United States came along. She was chugging along at about 35 miles per hour.

It's a sign of the times that she was the first ocean liner with a Jewish Prayer room,  It was a policy to show there was no religious issue - any body of any faith could travel.

Of course, in any conflict, people have to make difficult decisions. On 2 October 1942, the QM  sliced through one of her escort ships, HMS Curacoa off the Irish coast. 239 lives were lost. But the QM was carrying thousands of Americans of the 29th Infantry Division to join the Allied forces in Europe and was under strict orders not to stop for any reason as the risk of U-boat attack was too high, The QM had been damaged in the collision but managed to sail on.

At the time it was claimed  she sailed on, regardless but later it was claimed that the Cpt sent one escort boat back to pick up survivors from the stricken Curacoa. Even later, a published memoir reports more than one escort boat went back, saving over 90 of the Curacoa crew.
 Queen Mary was retired after her 1,000th crossing of the North Atlantic.
Her last captain had a geat name; Captain John Treasure Jones. I wonder if he was known as Davie Jones.
My favourite fact, the Whistle on the QM can be heard ten miles away!

Caro Ramsay  27 8 11 2014

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Too little, and far too late. But better than nothing.

I do not know why World War I means so much to me.  

Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by the sheer idiocy of the entire venture.  Unlike World War II, there was no reason to go to war, other than rampant nationalism and male testosterone.  But to war, the major European powers went, resulting in the deaths of millions of men and the associated family tragedies.  The war was so horrific that it still sears people’s minds, even though no combatants are still alive.

800,000 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London - one for each death

My first associations with World War I were through poetry.  Initially I loved the jingoistic verses of Rupert Brooke, who died at the young age of 27 in 1915, not from action but from sepsis en route to fight at Gallipoli.

Rupert Brooke

The Soldier

IF I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

But then my interest turned to the more realistic and bitter verses of Wilfred Owen, who died in Europe at age 25.  In particular, I love the poem Dulce et decorum est, which really benefits from being read out loud:

Wilfred Owen

Dulce et decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. . . 
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud  
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest  
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

What really gets to me in this poem is the last line, spat out in ultimate sarcasm and bitterness:  Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori, which means It is sweet and beautiful to die for one’s country.  Owen lifted this line from Roman lyrical poet Horace's Odes.

On this 100th anniversary of the start of one of mankind’s greatest tragedies, I want to say a few words about African involvement in the war.  

I suspect that very few people could tell you anything about the involvement of Africa and Africans in WWI – with the exception, of course, of blog mate Annamaria.  I will leave it to her to cover the East African campaigns, in which well over a million people died, and I’ll postpone to some other time, the campaign in German South West Africa.

I want to pay tribute to the thousands of Black South Africans who went to Europe to support the country’s fighting troops.  They worked as cooks, builders, stevedores, batmen, and so on – but not as combatants.  All in all, over 30,000 non-White South Africans went to the Western Front, and several thousand died. 

The greatest tragedy to befall Black South Africans in the war was the sinking of the troopship SS Mende off the Isle of Wight on February 21 1917 after a collision in thick fog with another vessel, the SS Darro.

SS Mende

On board were 823 personnel of the 5th Battalion the South African Native Labour Corps.  607 of them died.

Of course, they and other Black casualties could not be buried in the same cemeteries as their White compatriots, but were buried in nearby civilian cemeteries and, for all intents and purposes, forgotten.

Until this year . . .

Private Myengwa Beleza was one of the first black South African soldiers to be killed in France during the 1914-1918 war.  He died on November 27, 1916 and was buried in a civilian cemetery at the port city of Le Havre.

In June this year, his remains were exhumed and he was reburied at the South African Memorial, where 600 of his White fellow South Africans are buried.

South African Memorial at Delville Wood - now multiracial

"The re-interment process is part of government efforts to restore the dignity, particularly of those black South Africans who made an immense contribution towards world peace," spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said.

In addition, the Mende disaster is remembered through The Mende Award, which is South Africa’s highest award for bravery.

So after 100 years, some recognition is being made of those who were not White, who lost their lives for King and country.  Far too little, and far too late, I think.  But better than nothing.

Stan - Thursday