Krakow- Inspiration and Warning

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Cloth Hall, Krakow

Krakow
This is the elegant, Italianate Cloth Hall in the centre of the magnificent main square of Krakow in Poland. The city deservedly has a reputation for being beautiful. I have just spent a few days there and can confirm that this is the case. The city is also very friendly with lots of thriving young enterprises and a rich musical and cultural life. It has existed for around 1,000 years and in that time has experienced many changes of fortune. Like all of Eastern Europe it has been very unfortunate in its choice of neighbours. Throughout its history it has suffered the arrogant, expansionist attentions of Austria, Prussia, Nazi Germany and Russia. before that they had to deal with the Mongols and the Ottoman Turks. For some 150 years the country simply disappeared from the map only to rediscover its identity at the end of The First World War. That, of course was simply a precursor for some of the most horrific events of all human history at the hands of Nazis and Bolsheviks.
One evening we went to a concert of Chopin piano music in an elegant small palace off the main square. The very fine pianist Bartlomiej Kominek played an array of the intricately beautiful piano pieces of his countryman. It reminded me that one of the first Chopin piano pieces I ever heard was the spellbinding Revolutionary Etude (etude no. 12 in C minor) which the great composer, then resident in Paris, composed to express his rage at the brutal repression in 1831 of Warsaw by the Russians.
In the modern city it is impossible entirely to escape the dark history of these events and a visit to the Jewish Kazimierz district brings back the Nazi attempt (almost successful) to exterminate the entire Jewish race. Sometimes the Nazis like modern Islamic State, like the perpetrators of the appalling Stalinist purges are referred to as `animals` but what they did was very much worse than anything any animals have ever done. It is therefore inspiring to see the free and recovering country foster business, education and liberty. One of the many beautiful cafes is Soprano`s near the Collegium Maius, a tribute to the survival and revival of beauty and style.

Cloth Hall

Another is in the Jewish district itself, near some of the events depicted in the Spielberg film, `Schindler`s List`. It is a Jewish cafe and civic centre. It had a warm, welcoming atmosphere along with excellent produce. Books lined the walls and people sat playing games, chatting, eating or drinking in beautiful surroundings.
Ironically, the most moving scene of our visit was a McDonald`s restaurant beside the Florian gate. This was the first western, private enterprise business to open after the collapse of communism in 1989. People queued for hours in their best clothes to visit this with more reverence than any shrine in any church because it symbolised the return of freedom to Poland. Personally I am not very fond of McDonald`s restaurants and would far rather eat and drink in the others I have mentioned but I too felt reverence for the place.

The Jewish cafe
Perhaps more than anywhere else I have ever visited this underlined for me the vital importance of democracy, of ensuring that power is never again solely in the hands of one faction or party or individual. Those in comfortable democracies like the severely misguided Russell Brand in Britain do not understand the world at all when telling people not to vote. All democracies, like all human systems, are imperfect, but the citizens of Krakow can tell you how vital the democratic system is. It is also vital that we do everything we can to ensure our democracies aim for the highest standards of civilised behaviour. I also reflected on the very sad rise of anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe. The ignorance and stupidity underlying such attitudes is very dangerous.

More about my books and writing can be found on  http://www.rngnovels.co.uk. My latest travel book Coffee with the Colossus is about visits to modern Greece. My latest novel is the mystery story The Moves of Murder set against the political machinations of Ukraine and Spain.

QUO VADIS IN THE TROSSACHS -Or a lot of bull

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Loch Katrine

One of the most celebrated areas of Scotland is The Trossachs. That is an area in The Queen Elizabeth Forest Park where you would find mountains, dense forests, pathways into the wilderness and very beautiful lochs like Loch Achray, Loch Venachar and, most legendary of all, Loch Katrine. The  fame of Loch Katrine has both poetic and practical roots. Practical because its immense volume supplies Glasgow with its water supply in a remarkable feat of engineering. For that engineers laid extensive pipework that is totally invisible now to the visitor who treks through the pines and mountain ash and birch trees. Poetic because it is the setting for Sir Walter Scott`s The Lady of the Lake. This long poem is not much read nowadays but its publication in 1810 caused an immense stir throughout Europe. Composers such as Rossini and Schubert wrote major works under its influence and it was probably the main reason for the journey of the young Felix Mendelssohn to Scotland to see the now famous author. Unfortunately Mendelssohn arrived just in time to see the great man set off for a journey to London. However, Mendelssohn did not waste his time and his magnificent Hebrides Overture, sometimes known as Fingal`s Cave was one outstanding result. Another, far less well known, is his piano piece A Scottish Fantasy which is a wonderfully evocative piece of romantic writing which I have only ever heard once, played on the BBC many years ago by the great Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet. The poem is often credited with having sparked the revival of interest in Scotland and the Highlands that continues to this day with the multiplicity of tartans, ceilidhs (a Scottish party with wild dancing, music and the occasional beverage) and the whisky trails all over the country.

Angus

Aside from all this however the frequent or the fortunate visitor to this area will know that there is another reason why The Trossachs deserves a visit. If you go to the restaurant and visitor centre at Kilmahog on the way to the lochs you can have fine food and coffee and Scottish wares. However, the real attraction is the noble Angus. Angus is a highland bull. This splendid half ton beast surveys his domain and his many human fans with august disdain. He is well aware of being beautiful, a bovine George Clooney with no need of fine clothes and certainly not of a haircut. He is more of a Samson in that respect in that his shaggy hair is a large part of his glory. Visitors can buy brown bags full of carrots and turnips to feed him which he casually accepts as if conferring a regal favour on those who offer. I once visited him in the company of a vegetarian friend of mine. She pointed out that Angus had reached a level of strength no human had ever reached without the need of meat. The moral of course was that I too could be stronger and more charismatic if I ate bags of turnip rather than the steaks and casseroles I enjoy. I pointed out that by that reasoning a diet of turnips would also give me a huge spread of sharp horns which I would find inconvenient. This argument was not well received by my friend although I felt Angus did offer a complacent smile.

It was on that visit that I made use of Angus for an experiment I had always wanted to try. As a youngster I had read a novel called Quo Vadis by a Polish writer called Henryk Sienkiewicz, a very good novel I might add. In it some Phrygian christians are ushered into the Colosseum in Rome to provide entertainment to the world`s most sophisticated audience by being publicly torn apart by a variety of wild beasts. One of the christians is a beautiful young princess called, if I remember correctly, Lygia. Even the love of the Roman general Marcus Vinicius for her has not saved her. However, also in the ring with her is her servant, the giant Ursus who adores Lygia. The first beast to be introduced to the ring is a huge, wild bull under strict orders to do very nasty things to the christians. Ursus, however, steps forward and faces the charging monster. He grabs the bull`s horns and twists them until he breaks the bull`s neck. I was impressed by this when I read the book and perhaps more so when I saw the Hollywood film. For decades I had wondered whether it was at all feasible that even a very strong man could do this. So, as we fed Angus on this particular visit he casually turned his great head from side to side as he munched, displaying his wide, magnificent horns. I grabbed one with both hands to see if I could restrain him at all from turning his head. The result was humbling. I don`t think Angus was even faintly aware that I was employing all of my mighty, steak and casserole-fed muscularity to restrain him from turning his head. If I had not let go at the last minute I think I would have been flung nonchalantly into the piles of mud and dung on the other side of the field. I left thoughtfully, wondering if I should re-read the novel to see if there is any mention of Ursus eating turnips.

My latest travel book is Coffee with the Colossus about remarkable visits to Greece and my latest novel is The Moves of Murder another in the Rojas Casebook, the mysteries of the eccentric Spanish detective. More information is available on http://www.rngnovels.co.uk

Farewell My Lovely

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Farewell my Lovely

Human beings have always enjoyed reading about their fellows being murdered, sometimes in quite brutal ways. Lots of killing happens in Homer`s Iliad and hideous infanticide is central to both the Euripides play Medea and the fifth century Norse epic Atlakvida. From Cain and Abel onwards the Bible has plenty of killing. The Elizabethan plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Thomas Kyd and others are full of it. The four greatest novels of Dostoyevsky are all murder stories. Modern films and bestselling books frequently deal with murder, its occurrence, its detection, its motives and methods.
So, why do human beings enjoy reading about death? Does it suggest we are more comfortable with evil than we would like to admit? Does `the dark side` simply fascinate us? Wouldn`t nice people prefer to spend their time watching romances with happy endings or hearing improving reports of noble, selfless deeds.? For most of us neither of these options makes the blood run hot. We`d prefer to reach for something in the wide range from a disturbance in the tidy, ordered world of an Agatha Christie to the brutal sordid realism of recent Scandinavian output. I suspect the reasons for this choice can be complex and varied. I don`t think either the writer or the average reader of a current, gritty potboiler has much in common with the output of Dostoyevsky.
Let us begin at the other end, the writer. Why is the murder/detective genre what you would want to write? Do we simply rejoice in the pain and sufferings of others? Is sadism an essential part of being a writer along with a reasonable vocabulary and some wordprocessing skills? Actually there is a section of the market, quite a big one, where that does appear to be true. I can`t say I understand that and can`t say anything useful about it. There is, however, a larger section where, I think, the motivation is quite different.
Consider some of the attractions of detective stories for reader and writer. First of all, there is one that applies whether the detection is concerned with murder or, less commonly, some other mystery. The story has a natural structure which is absent from everyday life. Normally the story will begin with the appearance of the mystery, probably a murder, and will continue until the mystery is solved or, occasionally, abandoned. Normal life doesn`t have that type of structure. It flows on from one minor incident to another. If there are major ones they are often sudden events like an illness, a car accident, a house fire. They are dramatic but they don`t usually offer much of a story.

Dragon Tattoo
Another major attraction of murder stories is that they often bring together very different personalities who would not necessarily be involved with one another for other reasons. You can examine the hidden motivations of a lawyer, a lover, distant relatives, a local tradesman, any number of contacts. If you are interested in human nature the opportunities are endless and that is one of the greatest attractions of reading fiction. Again in normal life passions and motivations are rarely as open to examination as in a murder inquiry. The fact of murder often means people have been pushed to limits that normal life would not reveal.
Then there is the obvious charm of the murder story that it usually allows unexpected interventions. People may appear without warning. Others may disappear. What we thought we knew about characters may suddenly be revealed as a deception. Whilst these things happens in everyday life it`s rare for them to be dramatic. In the murder story these events may take place in the home or in the world of business, politics, sport or any other human activity. The location can be humdrum or exotic and can switch from one to the other.
So, the murder story has attractions for those who like some structure, who find human nature interesting and who like the excitement of the unexpected. They can also appeal to those who enjoy a puzzle. A well-written murder story may present the reader with all the clues needed for the solution, as does a good crossword puzzle. By contrast with the crossword puzzle however it should be very enjoyable even for the reader who doesn`t want to solve it or who fails.
So, the many fans of detective fiction need not worry that their addiction implies they are bloodthirsty or heartless. They can indulge their pleasure with a perfectly good conscience. Even so, there is a huge difference between the style, humour and poetry of Raymond Chandler on the one hand and the graphic cruelty of The Killing. Superb as that production is the description of what happens to the young victim is likely to be upsetting for most people but almost as difficult is how powerfully the suffering of her family is depicted. Maybe a murder story is as good an exercise in self-knowledge as we can get in relative safety.

 

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The Women from Crete, The Moves of Murder and The Celebrity of Anders Hecht are all detective stories in The Rojas Casebook and can be bought from Amazon online. Currently only The Moves of Murder can be bought from other online retailers and bookshops. More information on http://www.rngnovels.co.uk

Vampires in Crete and Iceland

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On visiting the Greek island of Crete, writing about it and discussing it later I have found the subject of `the undead` arising from time to time. For centuries belief in vampires has persisted in a number of Greek islands such as Rhodes and, principally, Crete. In Crete they are known as katakhanadhes Elsewhere in the Greek world they are known as Vrixolakas. The 19th century traveller, Robert Pashley, provides a number of accounts of this in his Travels in Greece, published in 2008. I write more about Pashley, a very interesting character, in my book Coffee with the Colossus. Pashley was a highly educated man but one with a very open mind about beliefs and legends. He was enough of an investigator to establish that some of the tales were more convenient than frightening such as the one of the poor farmer who was disturbed to hear strange sounds coming from the bedroom where his daughters slept. In the morning when he questioned them he was told a blood-curdling tale of how vampires had entered the room and tortured the girls mercilessly. The farmer was devout and had learned that prayer and incense would dismiss even the most determined of such demonic visitors. Despite his earnest endeavours in this practise he heard the sounds again on the following night. On the third night, in despair, he burst into the room with a shotgun to see the `vampires` climbing out of the window, looking strangely like a couple of the village boys.
More intriguingly, Pashley cites stories from the wild, remote region of Crete known as Sfakiá. I did some research on this fascinating area when I wrote The Women from Crete. I drew for that novel heavily on a most interesting book about Sfakiá by Peter Trudgill, simply called In Sfakiá. Admittedly, the only supernatural phenomenon reported by Peter Trudgill in the region was the level of hospitality which, he said, `verged on the insane`. Pashley, however, collected stories of a more chilling nature. In the isolated valleys and pastures of Sfakiá some of the very hardy and self-reliant shepherds of the region reported much more physical encounters with vampires. In my native country, Scotland, we have plenty of tales of the supernatural but our ghosts in the main, are less sturdy. Vampires are more susbtantial as Bram Stoker has informed us in his novel about the most famous one of all, Count Dracula. This character was probably based on the fifteenth century Count Vladimir (the Impaler) Draculesti. This nobleman became renowned for resisting the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks who eventually swamped much of Eastern Europe. As his nickname suggests, he dealt with his opponents in an unpleasant manner.
This `substantial ` feature of vampires is not unheard of elsewhere. Medieval Iceland was home to some of the greatest storytellers in the world. One of the finest of its great tales is Grettir`s Saga. Grettir was the strongest man in Iceland and acquired a reputation throughout the sparsely populated island as a `ghost-slayer`. That terms seems odd to those of us in places like Scotland who expect our ghosts to have the decency to be already dead before embarking on a haunting career. However, the ghost Grettir encounters in the saga is the giant Glámr who has already killed some of the farmer`s cattle and one of his slaves. Grettir`s fight with this giant is gripping and the effect of its `evil eye` on him is chilling. Why Iceland and Crete, geographically and culturally so far apart should share details of this odd phenomenon I don`t know. Both are large islands which,for different reasons, were cut off from the cultural mainstream of Europe. Both have wild, mountainous areas where shepherds would have spent many a lonely night. No doubt both had a supply of some warming alcoholic beverage which might have clouded their judgement. Why, however, if they were simply under alcoholic influence, did they come up with such similar descriptions for these supernatural invaders? Perhaps I`ll have to investigate further.

READING LOLITA IN TEHERAN AND SCOTLAND

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Lolita film 2

Writing can bring strange connections. You tell your story in the most entertaining way you can and someone points out connections you never thought about. I have always admired the great Russian writer, Vladimir Nabokov, not least because he was able to speak and write equally comfortably in Russian (his native language), English and French. Most people only know him as the author of a notoriously non- PC book ,Lolita, about the lust of a an aging widower, Humbert Humbert, for young teenage girls in general and one in particular. Especially in this age of widespread publicity about sexual misdemeanours some think the book outrageous, barely redeemed by the fact that it is written in remarkably stylish English prose. At the same time it is usually cited as one of the finest novels in English of the twentieth century. Detractors would be very surprised perhaps to read the remarkable book Reading Lolita in Teheran by Professor Azar Nafisi. In the first place you might not expect any woman to be so approving of such an apparently sexually exploitative book. Then, if you share the widespread (and possibly true) view that modern Iran is an extremely sexually repressive place it seems more strange. However, Professor Nafisi and her female students at the University of Teheran became great admirers not just of this book but of all of the work of Nabokov. What they saw in the novel was a very intelligent study of tyranny. The main character, Humbert, believes he has every right to exploit teenage girls for his own pleasure. Similarly, Professor Nafisi saw the Islamic revolution as bringing in a tyrannical attitude with women`s rights ignored totally and some of the punishments administered more like nasty forms of sexual perversion than any kind of justice. The admiration extended to other works of Nabokov like Pnin and Pale Fire. He was not the only writer studied or admired by them but apparently he was the one who most spoke to their plight. These books formed the core of a silent protest and demand for the elementary rights and freedoms all human beings should enjoy.
Nabokov was a wonderful, humorous, inventive stylist in English with his books providing many types of pleasure. In real life he was also a lecturer in English, an expert in butterflies, a tennis coach and a composer of intricate chess problems. As his novels suggest, he had strong views about tyranny and personal freedom. I hadn`t thought about any parallels between his own writing and mine until I received an interesting email from a woman who had read my novel The Moves of Murder. There is the obvious initial parallel that my novel opens with a chess match, but one that, we soon learn, is overshadowed by some very sinister politics. Both are quite probable Nabokov territory. Then there is Montariol, the influential French politician. His attitude to sexual exploitation only differs from Humbert`s in being directed to an older age-group. However, just as Humbert`s obsession eventually causes him prolonged pain and suffering Montariol`s agony comes more quickly from Kristina, an expert in the art of self-defence, although she also has a much more devastating pain in store for him in the long term. These parallels interested me since I had not even considered them. I thought more about it. The theme of politically driven East Europeans who believe any act, even murder, is justified to impose their undemocratic will very differently expresses one of Nabokov`s major obsessions since he knew that kind of tyranny at first hand.
Humbert Humbert is more of a romantic than Montariol. He is in love with Lolita, even if that love and its expression are illicit. Narciso, the tormented priest in my book, suffers equal agonies with a love that is illicit in a very different sense. I wonder what Nabokov would have made of my detective, Miguel Rojas. Apparently he is as impervious to temptation as Humbert is vulnerable but he is human so he must have a weakness. Would Nabokov have spotted what it is? Would he have bothered reading my book in the first place? A writer can hope.
The message has tempted me to go back and read Nabokov`s work again. However, I`m sure other writers who know his books will understand when I say I`m a little afraid to do so. His style is so dazzling and his use of English so creative it is likely to be infectious. At the same time, although Nabokov`s subtleties are interesting and amusing any writer has to remember that novels should be gripping and entertaining. They are not crossword puzzles. Nabokov`s books are very readable even if it doesn`t occur to you they might be metaphors for tyranny or exploitation.
I was very flattered that anyone had given such thought to my story. I was also surprised that such parallels could be found. All writers will agree with me you`re happy if readers enjoy your book in any way that suits them.

The Moves of Murder is published by Belvedere Publishing and is available from most online retailers and soon from most bookshops. More information about and excerpts from my books on http://www.rngnovels.co.uk

The Edinburgh of the South

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Tholos

I recently visited Delphi in Greece. This spectacularly beautiful site on the slopes of Mount Parnassus was revered by ancient Greeks from all over the fractious Hellenic world. This was where the god Apollo spoke through a crack in the rock to those worthy of his wisdom. The sacred truths were relayed through an `oracle`, almost certainly a woman intoxicated by incense and what we may term today as `substance abuse`. Even before the sanctuary of Apollo was built however this was thought to be the birthplace of the earth goddess Ge (as in Geology, as a matter of interest). Down the slope from the temple of Apollo and the rock beside which the Oracle consulted is the sanctuary of Athena. This is quite proper since Apollo was the sun god and Athena goddess of the moon. This was another version of the ancient religious observation that the sun god brings life but dies at the summer solstice only to be reborn in the arms of the virgin moon in December when the whole cycle begins again.
The timing of my visit to Delphi was not the best from the point of view of weather. If I were a more fragile soul I might have felt the sun god was not very happy to see me since I explored the famous site in pouring rain. I reflected that the weather was more what I`d expect from Edinburgh than Greece. I had to admit the rain was a little warmer than we sometimes get in Scotland. However, it had that particular eastern Mediterranean character of appearing to provide you with a personal cloud that dropped the entire Aegean Sea on you every minute wherever you moved.
As I made me way down that hallowed mountainside, a glorious rainbow appeared which told me that Apollo had simply been having a bit of harmless amusement with this northern visitor whom he probably thought waterproof in any case. This coincided with my reaching the sanctuary of Athena. There, suddenly, I had another reason to feel that I was back in Edinburgh. I stood by the temple of the goddess, a circular structure known as the Tholos. I realised that I had stood beside this great structure before. On Calton Hill, the rise that overlooks Princes Street in Edinburgh, is a replica of this type of edifice. It is the Dugald Stewart Monument, celebrating the life of the very influential eighteenth century Scottish philosopher. It is normally said that this monument was built as a copy of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens but I wondered of the sanctuary of Athena was in fact the prototype.

Calton Hill
Holy sites around the world have all too often been the focus of war, dispute and carnage amongst so-called `believers`. Calling them `holy` sometimes seems a cruel irony. Delphi was different. Its presence and influence united the Greek world which extended at that time far beyond the present country`s boundaries, including Marseilles in France and Alexandria in Egypt. I liked that comparison. If the parallels between Delphi and Edinburgh could be extended to include that effect then I would be very pleased. Edinburgh is sometimes known as `The Athens of the North` Detractors have occasionally preferred to call it `The Reykjavik of the South`. From now on I shall think of Calton Hill at least as a little piece of Delphi radiating peace and harmony even in the rain.

My latest travel book is Coffee with the Colossus about travels in Greece. More about my writing is available on http://www.rngnovels.co.uk

DELPHI:The Beauty,the Mystery, the Oracle.

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Sanctuary of Apollo

Last week I took myself off to Greece. I intended to spend four days in Athens and three in Delphi. I had visited the Greek capital before but had never taken the two and a half hour bus journey into the mountains to the great sanctuary of ancient Greek religion. To the extent that ancient Greek religion is discussed or referred to at all nowadays it`s usually in a playful manner, implying that only rather stupid people could have had such naive religious views. We have Zeus turning himself into a bull to rape Europa and Pluto enticing young lovelies into his underworld. Semi-human Titans get chained to rocks with eagles pecking their liver because they stole the fire of the gods and mischievous Pan holding sex romps in the woods rather like  modern rock groups or Italian politicians.

Not only did I find that the more I knew about the ancient Greeks the more I thought that naivety was not one of their characteristics. Add to this the opinion I`d had from a number of quarters that Delphi has a special magic and I decided to explore. Some of the apparently ridiculous stories have much more interesting undercurrents. The story of Zeus and Europa,for example, is almost certainly an ancient fertility myth. The name `Europa` is probably made up of two Greek words meaning` broad face`, a term for a cow. As in much else of Greek religion there was a clear acknowledgement that sexuality is in fact fundamental both to life on earth and to human wellbeing, despite the terrible distortions some other middle eastern religions have tried to impose on followers.

The Theatre of Delphi

Anyway, I began in Athens where the sight of the Parthenon on its mighty rock still seems to me one of the most thrilling sights in Europe. I am surprised by how much it moves me. Then I took the bus through some fine Greek countryside. This,of course, iincludes a specifically Greek experience. People wonder and laugh at The Midnight Bus in the Harry Potter stories which charges effortlessly through dense traffic jams where no real bus could ever pass. Greek children must wonder what the fuss is about since this is perfectly normal on Greek bus journeys. As I expected, we came to little towns, especially the ski resort of Acharova, designed for two malnourished horses to squeeze past each other. There, the broad, modern coach hurtles through the narrow streets. The `serious gulp moment` inevitably happens when you see an equally broad delivery van approaching from the other direction. There is no possibility in the non-Greek, non Harry Potter world that a dreadful collision can be avoided and yet they sail past each other, quite possibly with some mighty Hellenic expletives yelled through the eerie mountain passes, but no one is hurt. No metalwork is scraped.

This experience is an effective preparatory for Delphi itself. There, on the epic, historic slopes of Mount Parnassus, home of the eternal poets, are the ruins of the sanctuary of Apollo, the strange `omphalos` stone allegedly hurled by Zeus, probably the most breathtaking theatre in the world and, further down, the sanctuary of Athena. In Athena`s sanctuary is the uniquely shaped Tholos, a small circular temple with some pillars remaining. It is said that this was the site of the first worship of the ancient earth goddess Ge. However, perhaps the most evocative of all its wonders is the huge rock by which the Delphic oracle uttered her famous pronouncements.

Gulf of Corinth

All of this is set in a landscape of quite remarkable grandeur and beauty. Although I saw it in wet, cloudy weather it was a wonderful experience. Did I think Delphi had a special magic, more than other historic locations I have seen? I have to confess that I did. Whether that awe resulted from finally seeing this famous scene after hearing so much about it or whether the natural grandeur of Mount Parnassus would have had that effect anyway I really cannot say, but I felt genuinely privileged to have seen it.

Along with the ruins there is a very well stocked museum and a great deal of information. Others may not react as I did, but increasingly as I immersed myself in this venerable place I began to feel the mythology which is so readily dismissed as naive and primitive is very far from that. I concluded that it contained a degree of wisdom and understanding of life that I do not find in other religions which advertise themselves as superior.

I have written one book about Greece already, Coffee with the Colossus and now have plenty of material for another which I shall get to work on before too long.

More information about my writing can be found on my website at www.rngnovels.co.uk

The Rojas Casebook

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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.

You can read more about the Rojas Casebook and my travel books on http://www.rngnovels.co.uk. My latest travel book is Coffee with the Colossus about my visits to unforgettable areas in Greece.

DOURO,THE RIVER OF GOLD

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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.

My latest travel book is Coffee with the Colossus and you can find more about my writing on http://www.rngnovels.co.uk

THE GOLDEN HORN and THE SULTANS WORLD

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Istanbul

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.

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