THE MOVES OF MURDER

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I have just published the latest detective thriller from the Rojas Casebook. Again it features the strange, legendary, scarcely human, Chief Inspector Miguel Rojas. Rojas is always courteous and patient yet he has an uncanny ability to terrify even the most hardened criminal. Suspects who sneer at other interrogators crumble before his unnerving gaze. Louise has caught some of that in her cover design for the book.

THE MOVES OF MURDER
THE PLAYER IN THE SHADOWS

An attractive journalist is found dead in a flat in Málaga. A powerful French politician is arrested in London for attempted sexual assault. A brilliant Ukrainian chess master inexplicably loses an important match in the sunshine of Portugal. A respected Spanish priest falls from grace and hints at murder. What dark forces of modern European politics lie behind these apparently unconnected events?
The legendary Chief Inspector Miguel Rojas of the Spanish National Guard begins to see strange, unexpected connections. The powerful French politician is dangerous. The journalist in Málaga attracted interesting men but some were more dangerous than she knew. Her friend, the Ukrainian journalist, Kristina Rigachev is, Rojas realises, connected with all of these events. As a result she too may be in the greatest danger. So too is Rojas` old friend, the priest of a revered church in Toledo. Most puzzling, however, is the legendary detective`s realisation that a figure is moving in the shadows of this case. The figure is skilled and resourceful. But is this a figure to be welcomed or to fear.
As before, Rojas, uses his strange insight and his network of contacts, some more savoury than others, as he sees once more that politics and ruthless crime are all too close in modern Europe.

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A Love Affair with Italy

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A Love Affair with Italy

My rambles around Italy were published at the end of March and already it has become the best launch of a book I have done. Coffee,Chianti and Caravaggio is available from Amazon both as a print book and as an e-book. The sales of the print version have moved much faster than that for any of my previous books, perhaps because of the great artwork done by Louise Macdonald for the cover and the brilliance of Kris Krug in preparing a pdf from that. Preparing a pdf, especially with the amount of detail in this cover is not an easy task and I could not have done it without Kris.
I am glad to say the text has also had excellent reactions from as far afield as California, Boston, Melbourne and Penang.
You can read more about this and my other books on http://www.rngnovels.co.uk

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Italian Passions – Coffee, Chianti and Caravaggio

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Italian Passions - Coffee, Chianti and Caravaggio

Well, I`ve had a break from blogging. I did a lot of travelling and got involved in two big writing projects. Since my request to have more than 24 hours in my day was refused something had to give.
The image above is the one created by Louise Macdonald for my next travel book which should be available in less than a month. It is called “Coffee, Chianti and Caravaggio”. Some of the little subtleties Louise has incorporated will be much clearer in the physical print book that will be produced. The striped effect with its colours comes from the flag of Italy. The dissolute image in the top right is an excellent reproduction of Caravaggio`s famous painting of Bacchus,the god of wine. In that way she has captured both the wine and artist references in the title. Elsewhere she is showing images of the Amalfi coast, Venice, Liguria and, in the centre panel the roads that lead to Rome. The advance interest is encouraging and suggests it may have an even better launch than my last travel book “Coffee, Castanets and Don Quixote” about four great cities of Spain.
This book is not a travelogue or substitute for a Lonely Planet guide. As far as possible I wanted to create for the reader the experience of looking from a balcony over the blue sea of the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius, driving past the sulphurous, bubbling and hissing gate to the Underworld at Campi Flegri, eating exquisitely fresh dorada in a beach restaurant in Portofino and the many interesting and entertaining encounters you get visiting cafes in Florence, Rome or tiny Alassio.

Here are two excerpts from the book. The first one comes from the chapter Tuscany, describing my first visit to Italy with my teenage son, Malcolm

` We did not for a moment think we had “done” Florence but we had already had a full day and wanted to get back to our peaceful estate and perhaps a game of tennis. On driving out of the covered car park I looked both ways and pulled into the street, suddenly noticing as I did so a young woman on a scooter whom I had come close to hitting. I don`t know yet whether she had suddenly pulled out from somewhere, whether she was in a blind spot or what, but she yelled at me and waved a fist as I turned. The incident shook me and restored the total caution and alertness of my first day in the country.
We headed back but somewhere took a wrong turning and found ourselves in a small town we had not expected to be in. We could find no signs either that told us where we were or how to get back to anywhere we recognized. I stopped the car in a quiet street and looked at the map with Malcolm to try to identify where we could have gone wrong. Malcolm noticed a woman coming along the street with her shopping and suggested we ask her. I agreed that was a good plan as long as she spoke English. Malcolm delicately asked if all my years of interest in Italian opera had taught me nothing that could be of any use. I wondered. I knew how to say “your tiny hand is frozen” and “women are fickle”. Neither seemed helpful. I thought further. I could manage “when the stars were brightly shining”, “on with the motley” and “no, I am not a clown.” Malcolm looked unimpressed and the lady was coming closer. Suddenly I remembered “dove sono” from Mozart`s Marriage of Figaro. That means “where am I?” That was better. From Rigoletto I recalled “pari siamo” meaning “we are the same.” I leaned out of the window and established she did not speak English. I said “dove siamo?” She gave us a name which we could not immediately find on the map. From somewhere else I remembered “ah, che voglio” which was something about “I want”. I said “voglio Pontassieve” since we knew how to navigate from there. She smiled, nodded and then burst into floods of Italian for which my operatic knowledge was no help at all. We caught “rivoltare”, ”sinistra” and what sounded like “semaforo”. That was accompanied by typically extravagant hand gestures. We nodded and said “grazie”, each of us hoping the other had grasped a little more than we knew we had. We decided “rivoltare” did not mean she was revolted by us since she kept smiling. More like a suggestion to turn round. “Sinistra”,I felt sure meant left or on the left. The word “semaforo” puzzled us. We felt it unlikely that anyone was practicing semaphore signalling in the main street of wherever we were. Malcolm wondered if it could mean some other kind of signal like a traffic light. This was such a good idea that I felt sure we had to turn round, go to the traffic lights and turn left. I turned the car and drove in the direction she had pointed. We prayed for traffic lights and, there they were. We turned left and noticed a sign ahead. We approached it and, sure enough, we were on our way to Pontassieve. “Maybe opera`s not so useless after all,” Malcolm generously admitted.
*
The second passage comes from the chapter The Company in Venice, describing my first visit to the city, this time travelling alone.

Almost everything about Venice is hard to believe. The approach to it alone is unlike that to any other place I have ever visited. I arrived at the airport from which a water taxi awaits to take you to your destination. You step in and all around are the waters of the lagoon, the broad natural inlet from the Gulf of Venice, protected by the narrow necks of land known as littorale. I looked around in vain to see any sign of the legendary home of Titian, Tintoretto and the empire that had ruled the Mediterranean. The crossing of the lagoon on the map had looked so short that I had expected it to be not much more than a long paddle. But as the water taxi got under way no buildings were in view. We set off on this great ocean, as it seemed, as if saying goodbye to reality. That sensation grew as in the distance I saw the first towers of San Marco, Santa Maria della Salute and The Campanile rise hazily, shimmeringly, from the water. They looked insubstantial, unsteady mirages rather than buildings of stone. Gradually more detail appeared as if Titian were painting it in as we approached. Eventually, within sight of the landing by the Doge`s Palace it almost resembled a city in which people could live, but far more ornate, colourful and imaginative than any real settlement. It was quite late and I wanted to check into my hotel but first I took one stroll past the Doge`s Palace into Piazza San Marco, St. Mark`s Square, to see the renowned basilica. In the broad square in front of it were the expected crowds of pigeons and on the far side the long line of porticoes leading to shops selling every item of fashionable living. The Basilica San Marco itself is so dreamlike that the sense of the unreal that had come over me on the lagoon appeared to be confirmed. Set in a great western city it speaks of the orient as do spices and perfumes or the poetry of Omar Khayyam or the music of Scheherezade. That, of course, is appropriate since St. Mark, the city`s patron saint, was from the Middle East. Legend has it that he replaced the original patron, St. Theodore, when in 832 Venetian sailors brought the Apostle`s bones from Alexandria in Egypt. The great empire once ruled from The Doge`s Palace beside the Basilica stretched far into the Levant where the navy of this small city could deter even the might of Turkey under the sultans. Needing some reassurance that at least my hotel room was a reality I took another vaporetto to the Lido where reality was in plentiful, maybe even excessive, supply. My room was huge with two functional beds that looked more like army surplus than art nouveau. There was no bedding when I went in. There was a mattress on each, both of which looked as if children had used them as trampoline practice and one appeared to have been chewed by some creature. I was not wholly convinced the creature was not now inside it, bedding down to start a family. The porter appeared to visibly stagger when I told him I thought this was a dump and wanted a better room. His mind was suddenly wiped clean of the moderate command of English he had shown and he resorted to Italian exclamations with hand gestures which suggested that any tether he had ever had had reached its end long ago. Tasks such as finding another room in this fairly small hotel could not be expected of him. I suspected he was in line for a substantial bonus if he could persuade anyone to occupy this slum. I went down to reception where the perfectly pleasant young woman appeared to be fully ready for my request. In fact, there were rooms in the adjoining hotel which was also owned by the management and within seconds she gave me another room key, assuring me that the porter would bring my luggage. I found my way round to it and thought it quite acceptable. My luggage quickly followed, delivered by the same porter who now greeted me with smiles and a return of his mastery of English, entirely restored by his expectation of a tip which did not materialise.

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Death in the Spanish Sun

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Death in the Spanish Sun

I climbed and climbed last Sunday in Malaga. Through the quiet streets in the early morning I tramped and turned off at the Roman theatre to begin the ascent. The blue of the Mediterranean just east of the Pillars of Hercules began to sparkle as the sun climbed, although it was still cold. I had eaten no breakfast and coffee was hours away. I walked past the lush garden with the pool and water-jets like a tiny imitation of the great gardens of the Alhambra. On its slopes were palm trees with leaves that hung down lazily over large cactus plants that seemed as happy in that fertile soil as in the desert. Up I went until I had gone above the high-rise blocks at Paseo Picasso and the beach or the ones overlooking the bay where the yachts of Russian grillionaires bobbed innocently. Then, gradually, it came into view, looking calm and reassuring in the early morning. There, below me was the place of death. I walked ever higher until the walls of the Alcazaba appeared beside me. It is the large fortified area begun by the Moors in the 8th century. Like me it would climb the hill until we reached the 14th century Castillo de Gibralfaro at the top. As I looked up I could still barely see the mirador from which I would look across the beautiful ancient city to the peaks of the Montes de Malaga which lead on to the Serrania Rondana. Gradually the chill of the morning was giving way to sunshine that grew stronger and warmer as the effort of the climb drove any cold from my muscles.Spanish garden
At the first mirador I stopped and looked across the city. Below me was the maestranza, the bullring. Of course I knew it was a place of death. That was its whole purpose, oddly incongruous in that land I have always found friendly, gentle, non-violent. It was the place of death but even then as I looked down to it I didn`t realise that I would be implicated. I went on, unsuspecting, until I reached the peak and wondered in the now strong and warm sunshine at the marvellous panorama that took in the gardens below, the Mediterranean that was now wide, blue and majestic, the chain of mountains behind the city and the stylish, impressive city below with its marriage of European and Islamic architecture. By that time, the pain and suffering brigade of panting joggers were now appearing as I began downhill.

Malaga restaurant
We move now to the following evening. I had already had some good meals in the city centre and by the harbour. I wanted something special and Spanish. The narrow streets of Malaga in the evening are colourful, busy and full of appealing cafes and restaurants.
Malaga restaurant in the evening

Eventually I chose one, Meson la Alegria in Calle Marin Garcia. The name means `house of happiness`, so that was promising. The tables outside were well-lit and the interior, easily visible through the open doors and windows had the warm tiles, the dark mahogany tables and the rows of dark wine bottles that can be so appealing. More obvious than all this however was the head of a giant bull, a toro bravo protruding from the wall above the tables as if he had just crashed in minutes before. The waiter chatted to me, quite patient with my imperfect Spanish. We were joined by another, more rotund gentleman and they began their normal routine of trying to suggest what might delight me. I stopped them. I knew. It sounded dull but I wanted grilled vegetables followed by oxtail. Neither of these would be likely to make the blood run hot in a British restaurant, but they are specialties in Andalusia and I hoped I had chosen the right place to taste them. The vegetables came, a large plate of asparagus, aubergine, courgette, tomato, onion, peppers and fennel. Each tasted delicious, just boiled and grilled to perfection with whatever combination of garlic, salt and local herbs made it taste so different from anything I could cook. Then came the rabo de toro. It was so good I was tempted to stop passers-by and invite them to taste. All the while the service was excellent good-humoured, friendly without being intrusive.
Malaga restaurant with bull

When I had finished this very special and quite inexpensive meal a thought occurred to me. I asked the waiter if the bull who had kindly provided his tail had been killed in the local bullring. He said:
`We`ll ask the torero.`
He summoned the more rotund gentleman,Jorge, and I asked him the same question. He said `Yes, that`s Pepe`.
`You actually named him? `I asked.
`Of course, these bulls are special. They are heroes. `
Then it occurred to me what the waiter had said. I looked at the unlikely figure of the small, overweight gentleman and asked:
`Were you a bullfighter? `
He smiled proudly.
`Of course. I killed 300 bulls. `
I tried to imagine this ample gentleman as the slim, balletic young man a torero has to be. However, the thought was pushed out by another. I suddenly felt like a conspirator in the death of Pepe.
`But you talk about Pepe with affection. How could you kill him? `
He smiled. He had heard this before.
`Bulls like that will be slaughtered and eaten whatever happens. Pepe died gloriously and bravely. We do him honour by eating him. `
I couldn`t really agree. I have never been to a bullfight and don`t think I ever will. However, I had thoroughly enjoyed the proceeds. I could not deny that Jorge was right. Bulls don`t grow old gracefully and die in a comfortable retirement home. Old animals in the wild usually die horribly and slowly or terrifyingly at the hands or claws of a predator. It was a contradiction. I couldn`t resolve it, but the meal had been splendid, the service first-rate and the old city had so much of that colour and charm that is specifically Spanish. My two Spanish books “Coffee,Castanets and Don Quixote” and “The Women from Crete” have been attempts to capture some of that magic. It`s a theme to which I`ll return. I`m glad to say both books sell well by my modest standards. They give me the excuse for `research` trips such as this one to Malaga.

Bermuda Triangle and Bermuda Beauty

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ImageThe Bermuda Triangle has given rise to lots of books, theories and TV programmes as well as Barry Manilow`s great hit song. I`d had differing versions  as to whether there was anything unusual about it and hoped to have the matter settled as I walked along the main street in Hamilton, Bermuda towards The Under Water Exploration Centre. I knew that the area to which it referred was a very large area of the Atlantic Ocean with Bermuda, Florida and Virginia as the corners of the supposed triangle. I knew that a lot of accidents or mysterious disappearances had occurred within it, affecting both shipping and airline travel. I knew something of the City of Atlantis notion. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato,   had set this ball rolling by reporting the disappearance of this city beneath the sea near the Pillars of Hercules.  That is normally thought to be the sea at the mouth of the Mediterranean near Gibraltar. I think it might take an even cleverer person than Plato to explain how , in a time when no one had crossed the Atlantic, a sunken city had managed without the aid of Google maps or even any living citizens to effect a submarine crossing. Then there is the `methane hydrates` theory ( just Google it) but since there aren`t any down there that too seemed improbable. I reached the Centre and made my unhurried way to the section devoted to the Triangle, its theories and its realities. Many theories have been put forward, some by impressive sounding academics. However, the Unites States Defence department considers there to be nothing unusual about the area. Yes, a lot of shipwrecks and unexplained disappearances had taken place in The Triangle, but the amount of traffic of all kinds crossing it is very large. Proportionately, no more unexplained accidents appear in The Triangle than anywhere else in the world. So, the only mystery about it is why anyone ever thought there was a mystery.Image

Bermuda does, however, have plenty of other attractions. For me, the town of St. George`s was probably the greatest treat. It is the most historic part of the island and remains as an exquisitely preserved period town. It arose from the incredible fact that in the year 1609 a ship sailed from England to take supplies to émigrés in the state of Virginia, USA.  Incredible nowadays to think that the USA needs anything sent to it. However, these were early colonial days. The ship, under Admiral George Somers, suffered irreparable damage near Bermuda, probably because of the coral reefs. The crew came ashore, stranded without a usable vessel on an island about which they knew almost nothing.  They found it a frightening place with the sound of spirits calling to them throughout the night.  I had the same experience in my comfortable apartment by the sea. However, I was a little less disturbed by it since I knew the sound to be the result of tree frogs which keep up a deafening racket all night, dispelling any expectation you might have of tropical tranquillity. They are amazingly loud and, since I didn`t actually see one I`m not convinced they are not thousands of wind-up toys used by the locals to seem exotic. There is a definite plastic quality about their call.  The crew did, however, rise heroically to the occasion. At that time the island was covered in cedar trees, subsequently almost eliminated   by the action of a tiny scale insect which has destroyed more than 95% of the population. With these trees the crew built and fitted two ships which proceeded nine months late to Jamestown, Virginia , just in time to save the desperate colonists. A replica (see photograph) still stands. You can walk through it and wonder at the skill of those who built it in very unfavourable conditions and the courage of people willing to cross the Atlantic in something so insubstantial.

We arrived in St. George`s on a beautiful day, just in time to see a `ducking`. This was a re-enactment by several local actors of the former tradition of `ducking` women who had been judged to be ` a nag  and a scold`. The actress who took on this role deserved any money she received since she not only argued vigorously with the authorities, she bravely underwent the process of being dipped in a wooden stool  five times into the water which, even on a hot day, was probably quite cold. She managed to remain argumentative throughout to the extent that I felt she would be hard to put up with for long. There didn`t, however, seem to be any equivalent punishment for males who were pompous and insufferable, characteristics portrayed admirably by the actor in charge of the proceedings.

The rest of the town is wonderfully picturesque and well preserved, some of it looked after by The National Trust. It had excellent eating places and cafes. You could sit by the ocean and enjoy a fine lunch of the local Wahoo fish or try the chowder which is already quite lively, but to which you are invited to add sherry peppers and black rum.  Founded in 1612 St. George`s Bermuda is one of the oldest  English urban settlements outside of the UK itself, perhaps the oldest. After its initial colonisation it thrived and then went into something of a slump. What lifted it from that state was the American War of Independence when it was used as a military base. It was heavily utilised again in the American Civil War to supply the southern states which favoured extended trading ties with Britain. The town is now a Unesco heritage site and benefits from that status.Image

Love,Lust and Literary genius

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Burns as poet who loved not wisely but a lot

Burns as poet who loved not wisely but a lot

Scotland`s greatest ever writer was, of course, Robert Burns. He lived towards the end of the 18th century and, despite often writing in Scots dialect, his influence quickly spread across Europe. Nowadays, his birthday is celebrated on 25th January in many countries of the world including Canada, the USA, The Russian Federation and many others. The very influential English critic, Matthew Arnold, considered him to rank as highly as any European poet, especially when writing about love. Love, as experienced and expressed by Burns, was a transforming experience and the cause of both elation and extreme anguish. Arnold considered Burns` poem “Ae Fond Kiss” to rank with any other work for the intimate, sincere expression of longing for the beloved. Whilst no one now disputes Burns` greatness as a poet it is still common to ignore the fact that for Burns love was not the mystical longing of a Saint John of the Cross or even the chaste absorption of Dante. For the great Scottish bard love was carnal as well as spiritual. He would love from afar but as soon as he got the chance to be near he took it. As near as possible in fact and if a barn or haystack were handier than a bed that would be just fine.
In view of all this it is interesting to have a factually based novel about Burns that will teach many Scots a lot about their national poet as a creative genius while showing just how passionate, and often promiscuously so, he was. One of my former English teachers had trouble with Burns, saying to me once: “Robert, I like my great men to be great”. If I met that fine man today I would gently suggest to him that perhaps his number of `great men` should be sharply reduced since I tend to agree with the guideline that ` a saint is simply someone whose life has not been properly researched`. Pamela Warren, the Boston (USA) based writer and musician has written a very readable but extremely well researched book about Burns. “Love Across Time” is a love story. It is also science fiction since it involves time travel. However, since Pamela`s husband is an accomplished scientist that is perhaps not entirely as fanciful as you might expect. Her interest in the subject has led her to find specialist books, some now out of print, about Burns, his language and the time he lived. So, the book combines some very good and careful scholarship with a real attempt to find the human being.
Anyone who wishes to know more about Burns and his world is unlikely to find a more readable guide. You should be warned however that the rather erotic suggestion of the cover is quite appropriate for certain parts of the book. Some scholars might disdain this approach but anyone honestly interested in Burns has to accept that love, physical passion and promiscuous sex were an essential part of Burns` life and his work. His promiscuity was by no means always innocent and harmless. Sadly, he was often rather indifferent to the hurt that he caused. Could we have had the great poet without the passionate, sometimes abandoned man? I don`t know. Pamela`s book shows that he was brilliant, courageous and loveable, perhaps often too much so for his own good.
It is a great compliment to Scottish culture that an American should go to such lengths to see the true Burns. How many Scots will be doing that for Walt Whitman? Not an entirely dissimilar poet, I `ve often thought, although, as far as we can tell, better behaved. In a poem such as “When I heard at the close of the day” I think Whitman is very close to the heart of our great Scottish bard.

Bermuda Mysteries and Coffee in Atlantis

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Bermuda SunsetShelly Bay

As many of you are aware, there is a deep mystery surrounding the island of Bermuda. I was dimly aware of this before I finally accepted an invitation made 45 years ago to visit it. I have a cousin there and had finally decided to meet up with her and her husband again and meet her two daughters, who turned out to be delightful. Only when I had booked my flight or perhaps even when I returned did I understand the immensity of the mystery. In fact it is not one mystery, but many, so many that I fell asleep on the flight back counting mysteries instead of sheep.
So, what do you know about Bermuda? If you are as well informed as most of those I have recently spoken to you will tell me it is an island in the Caribbean where people wear trousers that are too short for normal trousers but too long for shorts, and you will wonder about the origin of that strange practice. You will of course know that it has a triangle somewhere. If you are unfortunate enough to stray into it you will probably end up in the lost city of Atlantis or be transported by alien beings made of plasticine who whizz you through wormholes to become yet another horrifying statistic in the annals of strange occurrences. You may well end up in the Okefenokee swamp in Georgia 10 minutes after leaving Paris although the journey should have taken 10 hours with an air crew not made of plasticine, or, if French, of cheese. In the swamp, as is normal on international flights, you will wait in vain for your vegetarian meal to arrive.
You will probably also know that it is a sun-drenched island where the natives drink ingenious rum cocktails as they launder their money or, if you have seen the film “The Deep” , watch out for Jacqueline Bisset in a wet tee shirt. As the sun sets you can marvel at the sunset and enjoy the peace reminiscent of when the world began.
I had booked an apartment/cabin by the sea. I had a lounge which was also my bedroom, a kitchen and toilet with shower. I also had a patio where I could sit looking at the magnificent sunset on the gulf at Salt-Kettle. Most mornings I made a traditional Scottish breakfast of porridge followed by barbed wire sandwiches. Then I strolled round to the ferry terminal where a little diesel- powered ferry arrived to take me to the capital, Hamilton. Hamilton is large enough to occupy you fully for all of 15 minutes as you walk around it. However, within that small area it has some excellent cafes and museums and a sumptuous park as well tended as any I have ever seen. I was fortunate on my first crossing to meet an English couple who visit regularly because their son works on the island. They identified for me the best of the cafes where I went on my first morning.
It was not long before I had the eerie sensation that the first mystery was unfolding. I had not brought my one pair of Bermuda shorts. The main reason for that was that I had thrown them out last year since I thought I would never be in Bermuda to wear them. I have always thought them a ridiculous form of attire, rather like going to the supermarket in lederhosen with a feather in my hat. However, I was now in Bermuda so I had to be tolerant. I went round the shops and totally failed to find any on sale. I was tempted by a pair of pyjamas that were a couple of sizes too small for me, but I felt the Paddington bear motif would invite ridicule. How could it be that no shop on Bermuda sold Bermuda shorts? I looked along the main thoroughfare, Front Street. No one was wearing them. What I did see were expensively dressed members of official parties wearing normal shorts along with knee –length socks that seemed to counteract any benefit one`s legs may derive from exposing the flesh to sunshine. I was stunned.
I made my way to the cafe at the ferry terminal and in this most expensive of islands sat down with an excellent Americano coffee which, mysteriously, cost not much more than it would in Edinburgh. I opened my map to discover that Bermuda is not in the Caribbean at all and, strangely, never had been. I reckoned it was about one thousand miles from Cuba in the North Atlantic. I wondered if people had got confused with Bermondsey in London where you might well think yourself in the Caribbean. Perhaps this was why so many people thought their airline instrumentation was malfunctioning. Having expected to be in the Caribbean they mysteriously found themselves 1,000 miles away.
Another mystery is why it was ever referred to as an island. In fact it is 181 islands, all resulting from a volcanic explosion 30 million years ago. I assumed I was on the largest but even that is a number of islands joined together by bridges. My cousin and her husband took me around. First of all, we visited some of the justly famous beaches and, yes, here there is another mystery. Bermuda` s beaches are not sand-coloured. They are pink. Deep Bay, Shelly Bay, Tobacco Bay and others have long, clean splendid stretches of fine sand which is pink. It is, I gather, not uncommon to see weddings on them with the service conducted by a minister in shorts and knee-length socks. The `pinkness` is caused, as you had no doubt guessed , by foramnifera, specifically, homotrema rubrum. I had been on the point of making a fool of myself by recalling that my Uncle Joe had found a very good ointment for this when it was explained to me that these are little red creatures which live on the underside of coral reefs. Bermuda is one of the most northerly places in the world where such reefs exist, and they are of great importance. The extensive coral reef acts as a buffer to the strong waves which would erode the already small Bermuda land-mass.
The coral reefs are, therefore, of great importance and are at constant risk from pollution which easily damages their delicate structures. The island is, however, gradually acquiring protection from other less delicate structures in that it now has some 400 shipwrecks in the water immediately surrounding it. An industry has grown up because of them. There are resident diving companies which will help those interested to visit and explore them. The largest is the Pelinaion, a Greek steamer which was a casualty of the Second World War. The British had blacked out the island to deter German spying and the unfortunate Greeks ran aground on the coral. The earliest wrecks date from the 16th century when Spanish ships used the islands as a landmark on their way back from their explorations of the New World. Film buffs can visit The Constellation which is the one used by the author Peter Benchley for his novel and film “The Deep”. That subject of course suggests Bermuda`s most famous mystery, The Triangle, which I decided to investigate. I am now writing this blog from the lost city of Atlantis and if they can improve the coffee here I`ll report more about my exciting discovery in my next blog.

Remember to visit http://www.rngnovels.co.uk to find out about my published books. You can find out about or buy my travel books : “Coffee, Castanets and Don Quixote” about four great cities of Spain or “Coffee in Cuba” about that remarkable island, along with a weird visit to the old USSR, finding out how to become immortal from the knees down in Greece and the dangers of map-reading in Rome. For a longer read there are my novels “Masks of Venice” and “The Women from Crete”. For intellectuals amongst you who like deep thoughts about relationships and `Life` then “The Celebrity of Anders Hecht” will give you plenty to think about.

Ghosts and Celestial Geometry

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Since it is now Hallowe`en I thought some advanced `spookiness` would be appropriate. I say `advanced` because this gets complicated. You will soon realise when I get out of my depth with the ethereal world.

I was thinking about all of this earlier in the year when I read about the death of Professor Archie Roy. Like myself, Professor Roy was Glaswegian and he died at the age of 88 in the same hospital where I almost died myself four times before I was three years old. That in itself is not very spooky . You might expect three year olds to survive even against the odds and an 88 year old might have less chance.

Professor Roy was a very distinguished physicist. He was a specialist in celestial mechanics and became professor of astronomy at Glasgow. He was a fellow of the Royal Society and was asked by NASA to help them to calculate trajectories since he was an expert in orbital motion (I have it on good authority that that sentence actually means something although I shall not be explaining it).  He was evidently a very fine lecturer who inspired many students to take an interest in astrophysics and fun subjects like spherical geometry.

What was a little more surprising was that he was known as “The Glasgow Ghostbuster” because his hobby was psychical research. He founded the Scottish Society for Psychical Research and was never happier than when asked to investigate why people were walking through walls in an old Glasgow house.

Reading this reminded me of a colleague of mine in my first job. I was working for a Scottish publisher and on the bus to work one day I found myself sitting beside the head of the art department. Let us call him Jimmy. I knew that Jimmy had been on holiday so, to make polite conversation, I asked what he had done with his time. He told me he had spent it as he always did. He and his wife were members of a `ghost-hunting` club. He assured me that such clubs exist. They sent out (and perhaps still do for all I know) regular newsletters advising members of the best haunted houses around the country and offering  special deals for staying overnight in one. Jimmy told me that he, his wife, and a couple who shared their interest had chosen a house in Yorkshire, near Selby. Apparently it was an important part of the deal that you were not told the nature of the haunting before the visit.

Jimmy and wife met with their friends for dinner at a hostelry near the allegedly haunted  house . They had a strict rule not to consume alcohol before the visit. After it, however, there was no restriction. This was a relaxation for which they were, apparently, often very grateful.

After dinner Jimmy and friends went to the house in question, having obtained the key as arranged. They wandered around the fine old manor, noticing and feeling nothing unusual, although Jimmy did say he was aware of an unaccustomed irritability, even anger, arising in him. This feeling increased as the evening wore on and by the time they all went to bed he was feeling as if he might do something really nasty. His wife, however, liked the old house and found it gave her a pleasant sense of comfort and even optimism.

Jimmy lay in bed, getting increasingly agitated but was surprised at how peacefully his wife was sleeping. This enraged him to the extent that he woke her up. She was difficult to wake since she was obviously sleeping soundly. When she did awake, however, she looked at Jimmy and screamed. Jimmy, now almost apopleptic, asked her what the devil was the matter. His wife could not speak. She grabbed a hand mirror and held it up to him. Jimmy looked and saw that his hair was standing on end. He is not sure, but believes that he too screamed. They jumped out of bed (mercifully, he spared me details of their attire) and ran out to the landing. At almost the same time his friends also emerged from their room. Double horror, since the husband of the other couple also had hair standing on end and all apparently screamed. (I would remind you that this was a holiday trip freely chosen by the four of them. They could have opted for a fortnight in Paris).

They all ran downstairs and tore open a bottle of brandy they had brought for just such an occasion. On the following day they went to the local library to seek out the records of the house. Evidently it had been owned by a handsome, charming man who married three times. On each occasion he murdered his wife on their wedding night. Jimmy and friends therefore interpreted it that the two men had tuned into the horrific mentality of the evil husband and the wives had slept peacefully, tuning into the innocence of the victims.

I found the story diverting, but I was not wholly convinced. One reason for my scepticism was that Jimmy was in fact bald with, admittedly, a few surviving hairs. They were normally in such an unruly state that it would have been hard to say whether they were standing up or lying down. My other reason for scepticism was that I could not believe that sane people would actually spend their holidays voluntarily in a state of abject terror.

Professor Archie Roy might have believed Jimmy since he did appear to take the possibility of life after death quite seriously and stated that if, after death, he found he had not survived he would be quite disappointed.

Being such an eminent scientist, Professor Roy was often asked how he could possibly believe such garbage. He replied that his attitude was entirely scientific and that proof of survival was available. When urged to explain this he referred to `cross-correspondences`. This is where it gets complicated so I am about to give you the simple version. Evidently for many years psychics, mediums etc have been receiving messages which in themselves mean nothing. However, if you put them together and have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Classical Greek, mathematics, early Vietnamese gastronomy and the omnibus edition of The Archers the messages coalesce to form an entirely lucid and clear statement. I `m afraid I don`t know what the statement reads. However, Professor Roy argued that since psychics are so good at faking plausible messages from `the other side` the only way to be clear that you are communicating from beyond the grave is by `cross-correspondences`.

Armed with that wisdom I am inclined to pour myself another excellent cup of tea and let the after-life surprise me. The present one is sufficiently full of interest. My best-selling novel, Masks of Venice, deals with past lives rather than after-life in the normal sense. I have no idea what happens after death but I can see how being reborn could be helpful. It explains a lot that is not easily explained otherwise. Perhaps I just like the idea because it would give me time to do all the travelling that I`m not going to manage in this life even if it is quite long. I had great fun writing the novel and have some reason to think others have had fun reading it. Being able to disappear to 16th century Spain or Renaissance Italy struck me as more fun than working out tedious puzzles to let one brilliant but unusual Glasgow Professor prove we`dall be playing harps in Heaven

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My Savannah Zombie

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This week I added my story about the Savannah zombie to my website (www.rngnovels.co.uk). Savannah of course already has spooky associations from the book and film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”. My tale is a little different. The story is called “My Night with Scarlett”, the reasons for which will be obvious when reading the story. I hope to have it accepted by one of the online fiction sites and may produce a book of such stories. Having said that, there`s not much fiction in it, most of it being quite true. However, writing it, perhaps because Hallowe-en is near, did make me think a little about zombies. There is of course now a large literature of zombie stories with which I am not at all familiar. However, the notion prompts some interesting reflections.
The word `zombie` is almost certainly a development in Haitian Creole of an African word `nzumba`and we assume the phenomenon is largely confined to the Caribbean and neighbouring states as well as the African origins. However, if we think of these beings as `undead` of course this is how we refer to Dracula and friends of his who bite you a lot. I once had a conversation with a highly educated Nigerian man who told me that vampires were common in Africa. This may have been one of his mischievous attempts to see how much nonsense about Africa a young European (as I then was) would believe or he may have been telling me what he believed to be true.
Even in Europe however, the idea of the `undead` did not begin with Dracula. There is a wonderful Icelandic story called Grettir`s Saga, the story of Grettir the Strong. It was probably written in the 12th century and was based on the life of a genuine Icelander. Grettir is known as the strongest man in Iceland. However, he puts his strength to particular use. He is considered the most effective ghost killer in Iceland. It says something about the abundance of ghosts in sparsely populated mediaeval Iceland that anyone could make a living killing them. It would appear you could hardly move in the place for these undead beings wandering around. It also says something about these ghosts that they had to be killed all over again. After all, they are only ghosts because they are dead – but strangely `undead`. I once met a man in Scotland who spent his time getting rid of ghosts. He had trained as a surgeon but was happier spending his nights in dark old houses where things went bump in the night. He did not need to be particularly strong since Scottish ghosts appear to be much more anaemic than their Icelandic counterparts. Apparently wandering around with some burning sagebrush and sprinkling the place with some appropriate water is all it takes.
Grettir`s task was more difficult. We find him summoned by a farmer, Thorhallr, who has been finding dead cows on his pastures. He sends his huge slave, Tron, out one night to investigate and he gets killed too. This was not one of your `walking through walls and tapping tables` type of ghost. This one could `kick ass`. Thorhallr was understandably frightened. He would sit in the long,dark Icelandic night hearing this giant ghost wandering about on his roof. By now he knew he was being visited by the fearsome Glamr, a former shepherd who had been killed by an evil spirit. Grettir assumes at first that all he had heard was cattle walking on the roof. That actually did happen a lot since the thatched roofs of Icelandic houses would begin near ground level and slope gently upward. Cattle could walk on the roof,grazing. However, it was not difficult to tell the difference in footfall between Buttercup the cow looking for grass and the kind of Terminator on steroids who was Glamr.
Grettir tells  Thorhallr to go off for a night or two and Grettir remains alone in the house. The night when he awaits Glamr is a magnificent piece of dramatic storytelling. I can`t imagine how Hollywood has missed it. Grettir eventually overcomes the giant but suffers a version of the evil eye from him as he dies all over again. Thereafter Grettir is afraid of the dark and has dreadful luck.
The German linguist Klaeber, in his introduction to his edition of the great Old English poem Beowulf cites this as one of many such stories. He also mentions the Icelandic Ormr who slew the undead giant Brusi and also Bothvar who saves King Hrothgar from a very peculiar beast that did not like staying dead. Beowulf himself has to save the Danish court of Heorot from Grendel who likes to come slurping out of the North Sea at night to devour a few soldiers. The story is slightly altered from the other Scandinavian ones in that once Beowulf has killed Grendel he doesn`t have to kill him all over again. However, he does have the equally irksome task of dealing with Grendel`s mother who was so unforgiving and vengeful that she reminded me of one of the mothers in my kids` playgroup many years ago.
Medical science has of course got to work on this and suggested that Vlad the Impaler, the alleged prototype of Dracula, suffered from a form of anaemia that would cause the gums to recede, making his teeth seem unnaturally large. It would also make him find daylight painful to the eyes and garlic especially unpalatable. In the absence of a local branch of Holland and Barratt where he could buy iron pills a pint of warm human blood would appeal. Such beings would also not have reacted well to having a stake plunged into the heart at midnight, but there we could perhaps have some sympathy for them. I have never much enjoyed that myself.
The Haitian and Caribbean zombies were investigated by a Harvard biologist, Wade Davis, who established that the symptoms of `zombieism` could be produced by an extract of the Puffer fish. This produced a poison of the tetradoxin variety that could cause a catatonic state. I find party political broadcasts do that for me quite effectively. Anyone who follows the programmes of Derren Brown on television will have seen examples of Brown identifying particularly susceptible hypnotic subjects. These subjects then, evidently, become entirely controllable by Brown until he releases them. A little disturbing.
Those who read my zombie story will soon realise I did not have to slay a Terminator in downtown Savannah. However, my visit to America`s most haunted city was memorable. Happy Hallowe`en

Cistercians in Culross

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ImageThis is Culross Abbey in Fife. Culross, just west of Dunfermline on the River Forth is a unique and beautiful little town, now largely owned by The National Trust for Scotland. The Abbey sits high up on a hill overlooking the river. There are strong indications that it was the site of  a Pictish church dating from the 6th century but the building we now see largely dates from 1217 when it became a Cistercian Abbey. However, unlike many such abbeys in the UK it is still used and is the parish church for Culross.

The Cistercians began in France. The name comes from the village of Cîteaux near Dijon where the first Abbey was built. Its Latin name had been Cistercium, hence the title. They were a development of the Benedictine order which wanted to return to more simple principles. They were, in a mild way in rebellion against the rather sumptuous life that had built up in the great and influential Abbey of Cluny in France. They were launched  by a trio of strong and energetic personalities, two Frenchmen, Alberic and Robert of Molesmes  and an Englishman, Stephen Harding, son of a Saxon noble family dispossessed in the Norman invasion. Robert was the original visionary and Alberic had a taste for hard manual work. Stephen had the legal mind and created their first constitution. Because they abandoned the black garb of the Benedictines in favour of undyed wool the Cistercians were sometimes also known as the White Monks. Later, in the 17th century another breakaway from them set up in La Trappe in France,  leading to the Trappist order who were distinguished by going for very long periods without speaking. Having once had a secretary and a relative who were unable to stop talking I have at times seen the attraction of such a rule.

Monastic life can seem very strange to modern people and it is a way of life that is disappearing from Europe. However, when you consider the alternatives in the mediaeval world it was not such a bad option. You could have been a serf working an unpromising piece of land whose produce was the  property of the feudal overlord. Your village might well have been small with no stimulating company either male or female.  You might well have been summoned to take up arms against foreigners with whom you basically had no quarrel. Imagine even being a relatively more favoured young Frenchman. You have grown up drinking the local wine and eating breast of duck or cassoulet  or boeuf bourgignon. You are then summoned to spend an indeterminate amount of time conquering wild northerners who dine on deep-fried Mars bars. If you happen to be talented or intelligent the outlets for these abilities, especially outside the capital cities would have been few. In fact France continued to be a disruptive place. In the 15th century they had the 100 years war whereby, whether you were Catholic or Protestant, you were very likely to be battling your fellow citizens as your father and grandfather would have done with no obvious end in sight. The only cure they found was attacking either the Italians or the English who had the discourtesy to fight back.

Now, consider the attractions of the monastic life. You would have the company of men with common purpose. Cistercians were excellent architects and builders. They were also admired metallurgists. Hard labour was valued and that often meant working on fertile soil  (since the abbey is likely to have been sited with that at least partly in mind). This then produced quality food and grapes or other fruit which would produce one of the famous liqueurs such as Benedictine or Chartreuse, the names themselves reflecting their monastic origins. Beer would be brewed and consumed. Scholars could study learned books and even write them. Those with artistic ability could undertake the wonderful illuminations of The Book of Kells or The Lindisfarne Gospels. Of course, they had to exercise some self- control, since these were exactly the opportunities which had led to the self-indulgence of which the monks at Cluny had been accused. Cluny is on one of the main routes of the St. James pilgrimages ( as in Santiago da Compostella) and received  ample rents from its extensive properties. The spiritual power such monks were held to have also gave them power in the temporal world since the local lord who had just slaughtered a few thousand irritating people or slept with even more of the milkmaids than usual might well come along for some easing of his burden of sin. This would often be managed by paying a sum of money and wearing an uncomfortable set of underpants for a day or two. I expect they even marketed horsehair garments for the purpose, branded as especially impregnated with sin-cleansing properties. Not entirely unlike selling the Manchester United first team kit.  Thus the Abbey could become even richer. The temptations are obvious.

Of course, there were drawbacks in this setup. It could be confining and opportunities for carnal knowledge could be limited. There was also the perennial problem that human beings are not always easy companions and I`m sure the office politics of today would have had its counterpart in the favouritism of the cloisters. Umberto Eco`s splendid novel “The Name of the Rose” shows just how irksome that could be.  All of these problems could, I think be dealt with and were.  Travel between monasteries was quite common at least for the more lofty members. So, you could get away from your annoying comrades for a time. There is also plenty of evidence that assignations with suitable ladies were arranged .

Another very major consideration was that even many of the most bloodthirsty plunderers and pillagers  would respect the sanctity of holy ground, thus making them secure establishments. This was not always observed as England, Scotland and Ireland all discovered when the Vikings came calling.

I find a definite, almost tangible sense of peace and lightness about Culross Abbey as I do around Dunfermline Abbey. I say that as someone with no particular religious views. I can almost believe the stories that such sites were chosen for their positive energies which would have resulted from their being built on “ley” lines. These lines would have been established by a member of the community with particular sensitivity to such energies as modern dowsers and diviners claim. According to legend, many of these Abbeys have secret tunnels. The one at Culross is of particular note. Anyone who finds it can explore the tunnel to find the man who sits in a golden chair and who will impart treasure to anyone who finds him. Many years ago a blind man decided to explore the tunnel with his dog and his bagpipes. He entered the tunnel at Newgate and the sound of his pipes could be heard moving all the way to the West Kirk some three quarters of a mile away. The dog eventually came out but the man never did nor was ever heard of again. One has to accept there is some chance that the story is not entirely true.

Culross

Remember to visit http://www.rngnovels.co.uk to find out about my published books. You can find out about or buy my travel books : “Coffee, Castanets and Don Quixote” about four great cities of Spain or “Coffee in Cuba” about that remarkable island, along with a weird visit to the old USSR, finding out how to become immortal from the knees down in Greece and the dangers of map-reading in Rome. For a longer read there are my novels “Masks of Venice” and “The Women from Crete”

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