I have finally arrived at a cover for The Women from Crete that I really like. Again Louise Macdonald designed it for me and Kris Krug used that to design one of the best covers for any of my books.
The Rojas Casebook is the series of books recounting the remarkable career of Chief Inspector Miguel Rojas of the Spanish National Guard. The Women from Crete has sold well and had excellent reactions. It is a mystery story, a very passionate love story and is largely set against the marvellous setting of Ronda in Andalusia. This cover now captures the drama of the wonderful natural setting with the brooding presence of Rojas and the unfortunate victim.
I think an additional attraction of this novel has been the discovery of a German secret society that is penetrated by Rojas with his unusual insight and his wide network of contacts. This society, The Vehmgericht, is not fanciful. It was a powerful presence in mediaeval Westphalia and has made several returns to German life.
I appreciate that there is a growing mystery around Miguel Rojas himself. Although he exhibits surprising understanding of human passions he seems not to share any of them. He is human so he must have a weakness. If not for money, power, alcohol, drugs or women what can it be? What hints can we find? More about him and his world will be revealed in The Moves of Murder which, after some obstacles, is reappearing, now published by Belvedere Publishing and available shortly from all online retailers and booksellers. I had published it myself so it sold quite well for a few weeks when I withdrew it for the wider possibilities with a commercial publisher. More on that anon.
Last October I took a river cruise on the Douro in Portugal. I had never taken a cruise before. I think I had been deterred by my memory of having the company of a pig farmer on a train journey from London to Yeovil when I was young. Elderly as he was, he showed impressive nimbleness in accompanying me as I tried to escape from his endless lament about the treatment dealt to his lifestyle by the then Ministry of Agriculture. Intricacies of pig-feed pricing and bureaucratic contempt for rare breeds dating back to Henry the Hopeless or Wulfstan the wife-beater tumbled about my complaining ears for endless dreary hours.
That memory had always risen up when I had thought of cruises and the impossibility on them of ever escaping from a clinging fellow passenger. However, as I considered a trip along Portugal`s River of Gold on a boat of the highly prestigious French Croisi company my curiosity was aroused. I have always liked Portugal and the Portuguese. I remembered golden afternoons dining on sumptuous seafood casseroles on the promenade at Albufeira overlooking its endless beach washed by the deep blue Atlantic. I remembered ancient little towns near Lisbon with narrow alleys and white houses with bougainvillea trailing down the walls. I had never, however, seen the north of the country which I knew to be a little different.
We joined the boat at Porto, or Oporto (this usual name in English for the town is a bit of a misunderstanding. O is the Portuguese for `the` and Porto for `the port`). Porto itself is a most impressive city. It has suffered somewhat from the financial crisis and from losing much of its business activity to Lisbon. However, the country, like Spain, has taken the pain of the crisis, made many of the right moves and is recovering. Part of the charm of Porto comes from its very hilly nature. On the north bank of the river the land rises sharply to the august Bishop`s Palace on high. On the south bank is the region know as Gaia, a name which in other contexts belongs to the wide-bosomed earth mother of primordial times as reported by the Greek Hesiod. As such she could impart rare power and ecstasies to those she favoured. It may be no accident therefore that this is the area where the great port houses reside. The famous fortified wine is held there in dark vaults in the houses of Dow, Ferrero, Sandeman, Graham and others. In the Ferrero cellars which we visited they had bottles dating back to the 1870s, still eminently drinkable apparently, surprisingly cheap at a mere £120.00 per bottle. This industry was mostly the creation of English expats who had settled there over the centuries. Portugal is England`s oldest ally. This was somewhat tested during the Peninsular Wars when the Duke of Wellington laid waste to much of the country to prevent Napoleon from feeding off it. It was tested further in the Second World War when the very astute Doctor Salazar maintained Portugal`s neutrality. The British could have invoked the ancient treaty, but chose for good reason not to, thus allowing the country to be peaceful and also to maintain the only casino in Europe ( at Estoril) as well as be the meeting place for spies and double spies from both sides. The list included Kim Philby, Ian Fleming and Graham Greene.
We sailed off along what proved to be a very beautiful river. Like most people I had happily accepted the term “River of Gold”, assuming Douro was simply a Portuguese version of French d`or or Spanish or Italian d`oro, all of them meaning `of gold`. However, it is simply the modern form of the ancient Celtic name for the river that seems to have no connection whatever with precious metal.
Our first stop was at Lemago which I had never heard of. It is a very pretty town dominated by the The Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Remedies. This splendid, opulent church can be enjoyed from far below in the town. However, if you feel in need of an apopleptic fit you can climb the 686 steps to reach it, from which, if you remain conscious, the view over the town is splendid. Allegedly many pilgrims climb this stairway on their knees. Perhaps they take the view that you might as well begin on your knees because you will surely end up on them. I had never previously considered the spiritual aspects of bursitis.
This was just the first of a variety of lovely, picturesque towns I had never heard of before. I had however heard the name Mateus, because of its famous rosé wine which I and my friends, in our salad days, thought the height of sophistication. It still sells in huge quantities but the Mateus family who own the estate with its beautiful house, long ago signed away the rights to any royalties. A poor business decision. Before reaching it we went through the hills of Serra de Marão. We were among the vineyards that produce the famous Douro wines which, to my uneducated palate, always seem like wonderful value for money. These hills would make very rewarding walking country if every square inch were not devoted to vines. From a distance you can see the neat terraces cut out of the steep hillsides to make every part of the bank usable.
I am delighted to say that my fellow travellers, whether British, French or Brazilian, all turned out to be excellent company and both food and service on the boat left nothing to be desired. Not all of them showed much interest in the surrounding country although the views from the boat, both of towns and wooded hills was perhaps satisfaction enough.
Then we visited Braga, already packed with convents, churches and monasteries when each of its succeeding bishops decided he needed his own palace built. The irreverent young guide who showed us around suggested `blessed are the poor` was one of the favourite biblical texts in the town since it was they who had paid for five bishop`s palaces. From there we visited Guimares, listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, and with good reason. One a warm summer`s day you could happily stroll for hours along its historic streets with views of hills and forests around. One of the major ancient routes of the pilgrimage to Santiago Da Compostella runs through Guimares.
It is hard to avoid the view that the Portuguese have been subjected to the overweening power of Church and Autocracy for far too much of their history. To their great credit they managed a bloodless revolution to get rid of dictatorship. However, as some of the young Portuguese explained to us passionately over late night drinks, they have a long way to go before a proper meritocracy can replace the power, money, position and influence. First, they would need the kind of free Press which is an essential element of such a state of affairs. That is not in sight, but they are not alone in that.
My affection for Portugal and its very charming inhabitants was enhanced further by this cruise and my memory of the Dorset pig farmer has lost some of its power.
The view of domes and minarets across the Golden Horn or from a boat on the Bosphorus is romance, history, power and glamour all together. Since the sun shines quite a lot in Istanbul also you can believe heaven smiles on the world`s fifth largest city by population.
I made my first visit to the great city that straddles Europe and Asia towards the end of last year. I had finished the first draft of my book about glories of Greece, Coffee with the Colossus</em> and both history and geography had brought Greece and Turkey so close so often that it seemed very natural to make this trip.
Immense as the modern city is its historic centre is relatively small. It was clear that I could walk from my hotel down to the Galata Bridge over The Golden Horn to the Agia Sofia area. This area is a peninsula which forms `Old Istanbul` and was the site of Byzantium. Already this needs some explanation. The splendidly named Golden Horn is the broad estuary through which the Alibeyköy and Kagithane rivers join to meet the Bosphorus, the wide channel that joins the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The estuary is shaped like a horn which, presumably, explains that part of the name. `Golden` may refer to its appearance at sunset or to the economic importance it has always enjoyed with its breadth and deep harbour. At its broadest it is around 750 metres across and at the point where it meets the Bosphorus its depth is about 35 metres. It has four bridges at present with another planned to enable the metro to cross.
The most renowned sites are The Topkapi Palace, the Sultan Ahmed mosque, The Hagia Sofia which has been both church and mosque and is now a museum and the Suleimaniye mosque. For those who find Ikea too tranquil and dull Istanbul has the Grand Bazaar, a gigantic covered market with endless alleys past stalls tumbling with every kind of textile ware, food, ceramics, copperware and much, much more. I went through it feeling I was trapped in one of these nightmares where every possible escape leads to more endless alleys with abundant goods and feverish commerce. My only link with sanity was the few words I had learned of the language which enabled me to escape to the outside world.
These great historical sites are mighty and impressive. However, increasingly I found myself considering the empire in which these great edifices had been constructed. More and more I felt distaste for the incredible brutality and cruelty of the Ottomans, of the hall of concubines which treated women as commodities for the Sultan and the horrific fate of the eunuchs. By contrast I found myself liking more and more the vibrant, friendly, modern Istanbul I was seeing around my hotel and beyond. The number of restaurants and cafes was staggering and, as far as I could tell, the quality of food and service was outstanding. Turkey changed radically in the 1920s under the iron control of the remarkable Mustapha Kemal, known as Attaturk. Almost single-handedly he dragged his country away from its corruption and brutality towards a modern vision which is exciting. The country`s geographical position poses great problems and there are major tensions between modernisers and traditionalists but my next trip will be devoted more to the modern, much more egalitarian city that is developing. I found the city friendly, safe and inviting.
It`s obvious that Greece is central to western culture. It started us all on drama, philosophy, sculpture, democracy, mathematics, medicine and history. Whilst this is not absolutely true it is not far from the reality. Visiting it is strange then because it doesn`t always feel at all like part of western civilisation. Maybe that`s because the Ottoman Turks, not waiting for an invitation, occupied it for four hundred years, effectively arresting the country`s development for that time. However, it certainly doesn`t feel like part of Turkey or the Orient either. Ancient Greece has made its impact largely because it was so individual. In many ways it still is. I wrote Coffee with the Colossus to record some of my visits to the mountains and the islands of Greece. I don`t pretend to know more about the country than lots of other people, but I am an expert on my own very personal experiences. Some of them were astonishment at what I was seeing. Some were the immense pleasure of having a beer with friends by the warm sunshine over the blue Aegean. Some were hilarious encounters with monks or waiters or bus conductors. Some were sailing to islands like the astonishing Santorini, now a beauty visited by millions but the site, over three thousand years ago, of the most devastating explosion in history.
I wrote the book to enable me to relive these great experiences but I published it in the hope that some others can have a share of the delight, interest and wonder these travels have afforded me. The book is available from Amazon as print book or e-book and from some other retailers. The Amazon page can be found by clicking on the title or the image of COFFEE WITH THE COLOSSUS
You can read more about my books and travels at http://www.rngnovels.co.uk
I am delighted to announce that I have signed a contract with the commercial publisher, Belvedere Publishing, for my latest murder story set in Spain, The Moves of Murder. I published this myself a few months ago but the advent of Belvedere offers a much wider range of outlets for my work which, so far, has mainly been available only through Amazon. Amazon is of course the largest outlet for books nowadays and is still likely to be the principal source, but others are making progress. It will also be much easier for Bookshops to obtain and stock the title. It will of course be published both as print book and e-book.
At present my other books will still be available with my own company as publisher. That may or may not change. It is early days. Self-publishing has definite advantages and allows a writer to be more independent of the quite restrictive demands, at times, of the major publishers. Belvedere appears to have adapted its service very well to the modern world where a writer does not have to submit to the difficult world of major publishers and agents. Of course I`ll announce when the book is again available which should be very soon.
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 sees disturbing, unexpected connections. The powerful French politician has a very dark side. The journalist in Málaga attracted interesting men but some were more sinister than she knew. Her friend, the Ukrainian journalist, Kristina Rigachev is, Rojas realises, connected with all of these events. She is in the greatest danger. Then there is Rojas` old friend, the priest of a revered church in Toledo. A forbidden passion has drawn him inexorably into this vortex of menace. 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. Politics and ruthless crime are all too close in modern Europe.
Those scholarly enough to recall Alice in Wonderland will recall Humpty Dumpty`s view that `a word means whatever I want it to mean`( or words to that effect-I`m not scholarly enough to recall it verbatim). This is often taken to be one of the amusing aspects of that great work which, however, one will outgrow as maturity comes along (`shades of the prison-house` in Wordsworth`s great line, just to show I`ve read him as well). In reality Humpty Dumpty (hereafter to be known as H.D.) was expressing an insight which would have transformed all political debate since then if it had been understood. George Orwell`s `double-think` and `double-speak` are similar insights although they refer to deliberate manipulation of the language rather than vague thinking. Let me explain further.
The Scottish referendum, like much political debate, threw up frequent uses of terms such as `left-wing`, `right-wing` or `fascist`(almost uniquely used nowadays as a term of abuse). All of these terms confuse a simple fellow like me. What is a left-winger (when not on the football pitch that is)? When I complain to people who use the term that this summons up in my mind a range of views from those of Josef Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot to Tony Blair or even Barrack Obama I am usually met with exasperated complaints that `of course` they did not mean any of these. One characteristic of much `left-wing` thinking appears to be a much greater role for the state (e.g. Gordon Brown, Francois Hollande, Josef Stalin). How do they reconcile that with Marxist Dialectical Materialism which argued that through an inevitable historical process the state would wither away and that capitalism would crumble from its own contradictions? Would this question elicit more exasperated complaint?
I have the same problem with `right-wing`. This would range from General Franco, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini through Ronald Reagan and George Bush (father or son) to David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy. Full marks (and a course of either history or therapy) allotted to anyone who can spot reasons to prefer the `left-wing` policies of Pol Pot to the `right-wing` ones of Adolf Hitler or vice versa. It is almost mandatory in the list of right-wingers to cite Attila the Hun. Those who have read the Middle High German epic The Nibelungenlied where he appears as Etzli will see him as a benign, progressive redistributionist, almost in the modern Scandinavian mould. If you read the old Icelandic Atlikvida you`ll put him in the Pol Pot box. It depends whose history you read. The other name which tradition demands you cite and vilify as `fascist` is Rupert Murdoch. I don`t know much about Rupert Murdoch but I do know he is far from being fascist. The characteristics of fascism are: nationalism, high levels of state control, restriction of free speech and free press, economic protectionism and the right of powerful nations to occupy weaker ones. Rupert Murdoch does not fit any on these. He may or may not be a nice man but he believes strongly in personal liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, free trade across borders and the widening of democracy. One man who satisfies most of the requirements of fascism is Alex Salmond and, of course, the man he greatly admires, Vladimir Putin.
In the Scottish referendum debate it was normally sufficient for a speaker to condemn Toryism and Thatcherism to get rousing cheers. The reality is that Scotland`s GDP began to grow rapidly under the Thatcher Government, getting new industries like electronics and avionics and a huge expansion of its financial services industry. I grew up in one of the poorest, most deprived areas of Glasgow where old-fashioned `left-wing`, heavily unionised, benefit -dependent communities ritually condemned Tories ( including more intelligent and realistic Labour figures such as Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Dennis Healey) and perpetuated their deprived status for the next generation. However, regardless of the truth of that, I think cynical and/or ignorant campaigners will continue in Scotland to use these emotive terms to discourage people from actually thinking.
So, this is why, like Humpty Dumpty, I sit on a wall. Up here, I like to think we have some clarity, away from the tangled weeds used for their own ends by either left or right who do not believe in personal freedom, open, sane debate, democracy and international friendship. Mercifully, I think most of the UK takes a similar view and relatively centrist politics tends to triumph. This is not, sadly, because most of the UK has a clear grasp of political or economic issues. In that wonderful American series `The West Wing` President Bartlett laments `the strongest argument against democracy is five minutes spent with the average voter`. If you listen to a phone-in programme on the BBC you will readily agree. Mercifully, the economically innocent and politically misguided on either side tend to cancel each other out. When that no longer holds true then Humpty Dumpty and I will have a great fall.
You can read more from me by visiting my website; http://www.rngnovels.co.uk
This week the Press reported the remarkable and tragic news that Nessie, The Loch Ness Monster, had left Scotland and had been spotted cavorting in a lake in the north of England. I am now in a position to reveal the circumstances that led to this terrible tragedy for our nation.
One fine morning Nicola was ushered into the presence of the Great McSalmond for their daily strategy meeting to see the great man looking more than usually pleased with himself. The Dear Leader explained.
Nicola, or can I call you Nicky?
“Naw ye cannae. That`s a fella`s name.”
“Oh right, well Nicola last night I was riding home with wee McSwinney and my faithful Rottweiler, McSillars. Suddenly we saw three old women dancing around a camp fire.”
“Whit, in St.Andrew Square?”
“Verily. And they said to me: `Hail McSalmond, MP fur somewhere up north`- quite true you know. Then `Hail McSalmond, the Nero of our times`- he wis Emperor of Rome you know, a powerful man. Then `Hail McSalmond, the Modern Midas.`
“What, the man that turned everything he touched into gold?”
“The very one, but you see, it`s now got a specially Scottish slant because I can now turn everything I touch into black pudding.”
Perhaps the first flicker of doubt appeared in Nicola`s eyes as she moved a noticeable distance back from the great man.
“But Eck, whit good is that when we`ve got to worry aboot whit we`ll dae when the oil runs oot and we cannae pay our bills.”
A look of triumph crossed McSalmond`s finely rounded features.
“But, that`s the point, Nicola. If you mash up a black pudding it looks just like oil- and it burns.”
They were interrupted by McSalmond`s manservant Grumpy McRussell.
“Eck you have an important lady visitor.”
“Well show her in,man. Is it the Queen saying how much she likes the `yes` campaign.”
“No, sir, a rather larger visitor. So large you`ll have to go down to the garden to see her.”
McSalmond did so to be astonished at the colossal form of Nessie who did not look amused. To cheer her up McSalmond explained his new black pudding strategy. Onlookers swore Nessie developed yet another hump.
“That settles it, McSalmond. I came to complain that I have had thousands of years of being the biggest monster in Scotland. Your lie about the NHS has changed all that. It`s a monster I can`t compete with. I`ve made arrangements with The English Tourist Board to take up residence in The Lake District.”
As Nessie`s vast,stately bulk disappeared down the driveway an increasingly anxious-looking Nicola turned to the Dear Leader .
“Eck, you realise that Nero was famous for fiddling while Rome burned. Is that why you`ve been practising the penny whistle lately?”
I note that Nicola Sturgeon is outraged that the UK Government will not negotiate about a currency union. Just because they`ll be a foreign country is no excuse. I gather the SNP now have secret plans to ask Mozambique or Peru to underwrite Scottish debt. First signs are encouraging. Both sets of Finance Ministers were obviously happy with the idea since they couldn`t stop laughing. All this will change of course when Saudi Arabia agrees to take massive imports of Scotch whisky. Their initial refusal to do so of course is obviously bluffing. Then there is the tricky issue of Nato membership. If NATO won`t negotiate about the removal of nuclear weapons we`ll find someone who will. Mr. Salmond`s much-admired old friend, Vladimir Putin, who is an eager supporter of the `yes` campaign will happily take our nuclear weapons away.
We know that Standard Life, RBS and other major financial institutions will have to leave Edinburgh after a `yes` vote. At first sight this may seem like a lot of jobs to lose, especially when you consider all the painters, plumbers and other trades folk who will lose their livelihoods as a result. That is really not a problem. There is work to do collecting up all the `yes` posters stuck around the country. This may not seem economically productive but we have to find some way of using up all the oil money. Just because that fell £3.7 billion short of forecasts last year is no reason to believe it will not dramatically exceed expectations in every possible future year. The other job they could usefully do would be to count the number of terrorist groups arriving in the country now that the British army is not there to deter them. The Irish republicans have already indicated how much they are looking forward to a `yes` vote. It will all be fine.
It was so inspiring to read of the great chieftain of the McSalmond clan giving a typically hairy-chested response to `a` thae English an ither foreigners tellin` us we cannae ignore the debt` `Whit ur they gonnae dae? Invade us?` he replied with the matchless intellectual analysis for which he is famed in Invercockaleekie. Nicola`s adoring eyes rested on his finely rounded physique as she replied “Aye, they a` think we`re zipped up the back up here.” McSalmond`s noble face took on a puzzled expression. “Nicola, whit the f*** dis that mean. Ye keep sayin` it an` naebody understands it.” “But that`s the point, McSalmond. That way naebody can prove us wrang. Ye`ve strayed frae the true path by tellin` them facts like yer Plan A cos` it disnae work.” “It disnae huv tae work as lang as it wins us the vote.”
This meeting of great intellects scarcely matched in history since the Periclean Athens of Socrates and Plato was interrupted by a messenger blusterin` in from England on his famed steed Scaremonger.
“Hail o great McSalmond, I have to tell you that if you refuse the debt no one will invade. The problem is that Scotland will never be able to borrow again. Even Greece can borrow and they are broke. This would amount, in the technical terms used in your great paper on Economics for Dummies written by McDummies as `gauin` doon the plughole ` or even `comin` up the Clyde on a wheelbarra`. Neither is thought to position us at the top table of economic power.
“But did ye no tell them we`re the richest country in the world cos` we`ve got oil.”
“Yes, o great McSalmond, but they googled it and found we were 43d and likely to fall.”
“ O right,” said McSalmond peering in his sporran for inspiration. “Jis` tell them we`re no zipped up the back up here.”
I believe Mr. Salmond is about to reveal that he has discovered Father Xmas (yes Santa Claus himself!) imprisoned in Westminster by the notorious “Old Etonian Snobs” gang. “They tied me up with facts and reality and other cruel stuff” complained the old man to the sympathetic First Minister. “I`d never let that happen” explained Mr. Salmond as he assured him he would find a place in the Fact Free Zone that will be the new Scotland. He could be in charge of The National Mint where the money would be made of real mint chocolate. “Them English don`t even use real mint for their money”, he explained. It could have a nice chocolate coating and be wrapped in gold leaf. We`d call it the pound because it would be our pound as much as England`s pound. Each pound would be divided into 100 Desperate Dans. Of course everyone would accept it because it`s our pound as much as England`s pound. Anyone who tells you it will just melt away is being negative and probably blustering as well. He would even offer Santa a political career. “In the New Scotland all the turkeys will vote for you and we`ll have a lot of them. That`s another of my miracles. I`ll turn all these capitalist businesses into turkeys in days. We don`t need them. We`ve got any amount of oil.” He might even get a job producing the New Separate Scotland Dictionary. An example of that would be, for example, the definition of `bullying` as `facts we`d rather not hear thankyou very much` or `bluffing` as `facts we`d rather not hear thankyou very much.` or `scaremongering` as `facts we`d rather not hear thankyou very much`. Everyone will live in gingerbread houses and there will be a government subsidy to provide them with chimneys which Santa can slide down. This will be paid for by the great saving that will be made on history books. These will be very short books with three chapters. Chapter One will be the Battle of Bannockburn. Chapter Two will be “Bad things them English and ither scaremongerers did tae us” Chapter Three will be “The Fact Free Zone”. Santa, with a tear glistening in his old eye asked “And will my reindeers be able to fly”. “Of course,” replied The First Minister.” This will be a democratic country. If pigs can fly we`ll no stop yer reindeer”