My Next Big Thing

December 1st, 2012

I have been working on non-fiction and academic writing for the past couple of years, but I have kept up with fiction writing as well. I have written some short stories and
In the meantime, I’ve been exploring Poland and my Polish background. This led to the new book which is set in Lodz and in Scotland,, and, I hope, to a possible series with Polish connections.

What is the working title of your book?
The Last Room, which will be published in June next year by Salt. I’m using my Polish name, D R Kot for this one.

The Last Room

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I did a course at the university in forensic linguistics. The city fascinated me. It was before EU accession, and it was real old, industrial Poland with haunting reminders of the Nazi occupation: the Litzmannstadt ghetto, the cemetery with the grave pits from the end of the war, and the museum that remembered the occupation and the holocaust. I wanted to write about this, but I also wanted to write about modern Poland. A young woman came into my mind. She was a forensic linguist, she worked some of the year in the forensic linguistic department in Lodz. I thought about a case she had dealt with – but then she was dead, and that surprised me. I had thought she would be my central character. I had to find out what had happened.

Grave pits from the end of the Nazi occupation of Lodz

What genre does your book fall under?
Dark psychological, with a new European focus

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About two years. I was very busy with other work as well.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s a difficult one. I think Robert Wilson’s books – I like the way he establishes the European setting. Maybe Ruth Rendell (I know I’m reaching high in both cases) for the exploration of the dark side of the human psyche.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

There were several things: my fascination with Poland and its past, my interest in language – do you know how much your words can say about you? And my recent involvement with asylum seekers. One character in my book – a minor but pivotal character – is a young woman who was caught up in the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire and is seeking asylum in the UK.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I hope I’ve done my job well and produced a readable, page turner of a book, but one that will be quite thought provoking as well. it’s dark, it has its tense and scary moments, and it deals with an edgy topic.

Novelist Alison Taft

Lodz – day 3

December 14th, 2006

Thursday morning, Krzysztof had asked me to talk to his students about translation, so after breakfast (Ken was driven, screaming, from the hotel dining room by dirge-like music with a treacle-y flute and he breakfasted at the cafe across the street) we went to the university. The room was packed, and one of the students who had done a lot of homework on the internet introduced me in amazing detail. I talked to them about translation, and the way in which all writing is a kind of translation – transforming thoughts, ideas and experiences into text, with all its limitations. We discussed the way in which the translator of novels has a creative input that is rarely recognised (unlike the work of the person who translates a novel into screenplay, for example) and I told them about the translations row in the CWA which interested them a lot. These students, all potential translators, were puzzled as to why anyone should have found the decision to separate translations from books written originally in English strange.

Then two students, Kamilla and Edyth took us out sightseeing. We went to the Lagiewniki Forest first of all. There is a monastery there with an 18th century chapel that I wanted to see – last time I was here, it was shut. Krzysztof had organised a driver for us: Darius – who would stay with us for the rest of the day. We drove through the forest – even in winter, it is beautiful – and arrived at the monastery to find the chapel locked up. However, Kamilla knew the monks and we they let us use the entrance via the monastery.

The chapel was amazing – very beautiful and very ornate. In a side chapel, there is a wooden coffin which contains the miraculously preserved body of a saint. There is a notebook in the chapel where you can ask for prayers for a cause. I talked a bit to Kamilla about Catholicism in the UK. She was surprised and sceptical that married Anglican priests had been allowed to continue their priesthood in the Catholic church, and dismissed outright the concept of group confessions.

Polish catholicism seems still to very ornate and ritualistic – rather beautiful – and very prevalent. It’s strange for visitors from the secular UK to be in a country where religious observance is the norm rather than the exception.

After the monastery, we went to see the wooden chapels. These stand together by the side of the road, two small wooden chapels dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. The doors were unlocked – Edyth was worried that they might be locked up, but Kamilla just said, ‘This is Lodz’ and she was right. We were able to walk right in. They were tiny with wooden pews for maybe eight people. Each had a small gallery but with no access. People must hace climbed a ladder – there was no room for a staircase. In the middle of one there was an iron pump. Edyth, who had a country background, knew how to work the handle and pump water which was good to drink.

After that, Darius drove us to the Radogoszcz Prison, a building that used to be a factory complex but from 1939-45 was used as a prison and place of torture where the Nazis kept Poles deemed dangerous and Jews before they were shipped to Chelmno and Auschwitz. Tens of thousands of people were held here, many were summarily tried and excuted, others died from starvation or prolonged torture.

At the end of the war, the Nazis burned the prison down with the prisoners still locked inside. Some of the exhibits are the personal possessions of the prisoners, charred from the fire. And yet Poland too has its fascist movement and people who graffiti swastikas on walls.

We finsihed the afternoon at the Manufaktura – a lighter note. We said our farewells to Kamilla at Radogoszcz, but Edyth took us for a breif tour around the Manufaktura, which she had mixed views about. She said that it was damaging Piotrkowska, which was not a good thing for the city. In Sheffield, Meadowhall had the same effect on the city centre, but the centre is fighting back.

To be continued….

Visiting Lodz

November 27th, 2006

We have just come back from a short trip to Poland’s second city, Lodz. This was my second visit – I went there last year to a forensic linguistics conference. This time, the visit was partly as a holiday – I didn’t get a chance to see much of it last time I was there, and partly as research. I want to set some scenes from my next book in Lodz.

We flew from East Midlands airport. Ryanair run regular flights to Lodz – cheap, and in my one experience, efficient enough. It’s a scramble for seats as they operate on a first come first served basis, and I suspect that if they could, they would take the Virgin Trains option and have half their passengers standing. But the crew were pleasant and the flight was uneventful until we were approaching the city. We were flying over the tall, red striped chimneys on our approach to the airport when the plane started gaining height again – horror to a flight phobic like me. I immediately assumed that the wheels had dropped off, but it was bad weather down in Lodz and radar that wasn’t perhaps as up to the minute as it might me. So on we flew to Poznam – a beautiful city that I would like to spend some time in one day soon – and onto a bus for a three hour drive back to Lodz.

I had neglected to exchange phone numbers with Krzysztof, my contact at the university who had arranged to meet me at the airport. I didn’t expect him to be still waiting, so after a rudimentary look round, we got a taxi into town to our hotel. As it turned out, Krzysztof arrived minutes after we had left. He’d left his number at the hotel so we did meet up eventually.

The hotel, the Orbis Grand, is big and imposing and right in the centre of Lodz, on Piotrkowska, the long main street with shops and cafes – and rickshaws. But more of that later. Our room was shabby but comfortable – more or less what we had been led to expect.

Lodz is not yet a clone of every other city. The shops, cafes and restaurants are not the ones to be seen on every high street in the UK (and the US for that matter). There is a MacDonalds – when I arrive in the afterlife I expect to see the golden arches at the entrance to Paradise (or the other place), but no Starbucks, oh joy. What there is, is some of the best coffee in the world, served in a no-pressure environment where you can sit and gawp for more or less as long as you want.

We had four days to see everything. I had a list: the city centre, the industrial architecture, the cathedral, the Jewish cemetery, Lagiewnicki forest, Radogoszcz Prison, the Litzmannstadt Ghetto. Krzysztof asked me to talk to his students about translation, and invited us to his apartment to give us an idea of how people in Lodz lived. It was a full itinerary and we didn’t have a wasted moment. It was also a lot of fun.

Day 1

Day one was get our bearings day. We used it to explore the city centre, wander up and down Piotrkowska and explore the courtayrds. Piotrowska – and other streets as well, I’m sure, has entrances leading onto courtyards. Some are very run down, but others are renovated and exciting. There are cafes, restaurants and shops in these courtyards, and they are a very attractive addition to the city centre. On our first evening, Krzyzstof directed us to a pierogi cafe in one of the courtyards. Nobody spoke English, but pierogi is pierogi (a kind of Polish ravioli) and beer is piwo, so we were happy. Eating out is ridiculously cheap – expect to pay between 15 – 40 zloties per person. At 5 zloties to the pound, that isn’t a lot.

We used one of the rickshaws to travel to the top of Pitrkowska – we chose one where the passenger sits in front of the cyclist. We should have realised that having the padding of two tourists in front of him would bring out the kamikaze in our driver. We took our seats he tore off in the direction of pl Wolnosci, engaging in in a game of chicken with the Lodz equivalent of white van man, scattering pedestrians to the four winds and ending in fine style in a photo finish with another driver also ferrying two white-faced tourists.

We went to the art museum first. Unfortunately, most of its exhibition was closed for renovations, but there were two galleries open, one with some terrific video work, and one set of photos that we studied with a growing sense of familiarity until we realised they had been taken in the Peace Gradens in Sheffield.

We spent the first afternoon at the Manufaktura, a ‘more than a shopping centre’ shopping centre that lives up to its name. It’s a combination of arts, business, leisure and retail facilities on a site where old factories have been renovated. The industrial architecture of Lodz is beautiful and worth preserving, so the Manufaktura is a project worth applauding on all levels – as long as it doesn’t suck all the business away from Piotrkowska! We found our way to Wedel’s chocolate shop and cafe where – in lovely surroundings – we were tempted by pure sin in a cup. Wedels in known for its drinking chocolate, and rightly so. If I lived in Lodz, I would be there every day, and I would weigh 50 stone within a week. It’s evil, and absolutely unmissable.

Of course, the chains are here. there is a Pizza Hut, a Macdonald’s, a KFC.

To be continued….

Caerleon – a writers’ holiday

August 8th, 2006

I spent a few days towards the end of July teaching at the writers’ holiday at Caerleon. Teaching novel writing is tricky. In the end, the only way to do it is to do it – then read, review and do it again. I worked with a group of about 25 people, and we discussed plot and character development, ways of creating a sense of place, ways of creating tension and general issues that are important to writers. It was a good few days and I enjoyed the classes a lot. I hope the people I was teaching enjoyed it as much as I did.

It reminded me how much I used to enjoy the teaching part of my work as a college lecturer. Even, with the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight, the day-release plumbers who set off the fire extinguishers during coffee break (what do you say when you come back to your classroom and find it awash? Not, if you want to keep your job, the first thing that comes into your mind. You say the second thing which in my case was: Will someone go and get a mop and bucket?)

Anyway, enough dreaming about past glories. There were some very good writers at Caerleon and I expect to see some familiar names in the shortlist for the Debut Dagger in 2007. If you want to find out more, visit the web site at http://www.moltengold.com/caerleon/

Zoe Sharp will be teaching the crime fiction course next year – it will be worth doing.

Proof reading or the art of seeing double

August 7th, 2006

I have been working on two manuscripts for the past few weeks, in between going away to Northumberland and to the Writers’ Holiday at Caerleon in Wales (see separate entry).

Bleak Water (a Danuta Reah title) comes out in the US in September as one of the titles in the new imprint Bloody Brits (to launch at Bouchercon). At the same time, I’ve been doing the rewrites for Strangers the new Carla Banks that comes out in January.

It isn’t just two books – it’s two personalities. i’m beginning to realise that Carla writes different books from Danuta, so it’s been confusing to say the least. One of the oddest things about working with proofs is the ‘Did I really say that?’ syndrome. You’re read this manuscript. You’re read it 200 times. And you can still miss the stupidest things.

Anyway, I’ve been correcting the proofs for Bleak Water with my left hand and doing the Strangers rewrites with my right hand and I think they are just about finished. Query: am I going to look at them in a couple of weeks and think ‘Did I really say that?’

 

Lost in Translation: why the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain changed its rules

May 31st, 2006

There is a story – probably apocryphal – about a Hungarian diplomat who addressed his English-speaking audience: “I am not wanting to talk for too long tonight,” he began, “as I am knowing your old English saying: early to bed and up with the cock.” The hazards of translation are legendary.

Today, translation is big business in crime fiction. A glance at the shelves in book stores, or a check through recent awards for mysteries shows this clearly: crime fiction in translation is increasing in popularity in the English-speaking world. Books by Henning Mankell, Fred Vargas, Karen Fossum and Boris Akunin have all grown in popularity.

In 2005, the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain excluded works in translation from its major award and established a separate award for these books. This decision was vociferously condemned by a high-profile and highly vocal minority, and the committee were branded en masse as Little Englanders. Sadly, none of these commentators asked the CWA why the decision had been made. Instead, they spread a lot of misinformation, some of which was speculation, some of which was wilful inaccuracy. Some of this is still circulating.

So let me put the record straight. I have been a member of the CWA committee for four years, and I was the Chair of the committee when the translations decision was made.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In 2004, changes in the management of the then sponsor of the Gold and Silver Daggers, the major awards for crime fiction in the UK, removed their support without warning. When I took over as Chair, our search for a sponsor had been unsuccessful. We couldn’t afford to continue funding the Daggers ourselves. This meant that 2006 would have been the last year the Gold and Silver Daggers were awarded. A literary award that had been made every year since 1954 was about to come to an end.

In my four years on the committee, the search for a sponsor had been our major focus. The Daggers were getting less and less recognition and the CWA committee had little or no time to work on other, important aspects of the organisation. The Daggers needed a serious rethink, and I set my goal for the year to be the re-launch of the Daggers with a major, long-term sponsor.

This meant that there had to be changes. We took advice from various people involved in the book trade, and moved the date of the awards to the early summer. But we were aware of an anomaly that had often been noted in relation to the Gold Dagger — unlike the other major literary awards, it included books in translation.

Translations are tricky as the unfortunate diplomat can attest. As a linguist myself, I am very aware of this. Translating literary texts is one of the most difficult things to do, because meaning doesn’t depend just on language – culture and context are fundamental. Meaning can be tricky even between English-speaking cultures. Add a different language to the mix, and the situation becomes very complex.

But mistranslation isn’t the main problem. It is more fundamental than that. A novel is more than its narrative; it is the context of the narrative, and the way the writer presents it to the reader. A work of fiction develops atmosphere, evokes sound, recreates an entire world from words on the page, and different languages create these effects in different ways. Is it the role of the translator to be faithful to the original text, or to work more creatively to evoke the effect of the original?

Crime fiction often uses the language of the streets, it is often idiomatic, terse and regional. The writers do this to create certain cultural ambiences, to get meanings across that are clear to people who share the code, but are opaque to outsiders.

To give an example: in inner-city London, a new multicultural dialect is emerging. A mystery author writing a book based in this location might well have characters who use this dialect. Dis my yard, innit. Is nang, you get me? Don’t chat to me. That was deep.

How does a translator work with this? It isn’t just a matter of translating the surface meaning – the selection of this dialect tells the reader about the characters who are using it and the nature of the society in which they live. The translator has to work out an equivalent from the target language that will carry all the social connotations – very difficult in any circumstances, particularly if the target language comes from a culture that is less diverse than inner-city London.

The job of the translator is to recreate that meaning and that ambience in the target language, without moving the cultural context of the book. This is a skill which often has nothing to do with the direct translation – the translator has far more creative input than that, which is the reason why so many literary awards exclude works in translation – the text no longer belongs exclusively to the original author. The translator has had considerable creative input, and the success of the final text depends on the skill with which he or she has worked.

The CWA committee decided that if we were able to find a sponsor for a new award that carried a much higher prize, we would also take the opportunity to change the rules to exclude translations and award a separate prize that would be divided between the writer and long unrewarded translator.

However, our critics didn’t choose to fight the battle on these grounds. They dismissed the role of the translator as a red herringâ and were determined to see a more sinister motive. ,q>What matters,one critic said, is that the book is a good read. For readers, this is true. A good mystery should be just that: a good read. But for awards, the question of provenance can’t be so easily dismissed, unless we all agree that mysteries are not books to be taken seriously, and the skill of the translator can be largely ignored. I don’t accept this, and neither does anyone on the CWA committee.

We were first accused of taking sponsorship from a major retailer and altering the rules to ensure that the writers they wanted would win. This is simply untrue. Our new sponsor, the Duncan Lawrie private bank, is not involved in the book trade at all We have never approached a major retailer for sponsorship, and never would. Such a sponsor could have compromised the independence of the award.

The Duncan Lawrie private bank have a long association with literary awards and organisations, particularly the Arvon Foundation, a writers’ charity founded by among others, the poet Ted Hughes. Duncan Lawrie are sometimes referred to as the writers’ bank because a great many of their clients are writers. One of the things that attracted them to the CWA Awards was their independence. They played absolutely no part in the translations decision. It was made before we approached them.

We now have in place the Duncan Lawrie Dagger which offers a prize of £20,000 for the best crime novel of the year written in English and published in the UK, and the Duncan Lawrie International, offering a prize of £5,000 to the writer and £1,000 to the translator for the best crime novel translated into English and published in the UK. The difference in prize money recognises the number of books likely to be entered for each prize.

The CWA committee made a brave decision last year. It has given crime fiction the highest prize available for popular fiction in the world and ensures that two books of different types will be recognised – there will always be a translation and there will always be a book written in English.

As someone who was instrumental in the translations decision, I’m more than happy to be challenged about this. I believe that there are arguments to be made on both sides, and debate is healthy. I also believe that the CWA got it right. But I want this argument to be based on fact, not on false rumours or abuse.

Coming to the end

May 29th, 2006

For the past year, I have, in my other identity, been the Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, and it’s been a pretty tough year. Amazingly, I managed to write a book – it’s finished and it’s with my editor now. I’m just waiting for her ‘few little tweaks’.

The book is called Strangers and it’s set in the ex-pat community in Saudi Arabia. I wanted to write about that, because it’s such a closed society – you can live there for years and still know very little about it. And I wanted to write about a society that was under pressure. The ex-pats live all the time in the shadow of the terrorist threat. While I was writing the book, western ex-pats were attacked in al Khobar. A man was killed and his body was dragged through the town behind a car, followed by a triumphant mob. The Saudis live with the constant pressure for change – criticism from western governments, pressure from their own people, both pulling in different directions. No one really knows who anyone is – all strangers. I opened the book with an execution in Riyadh, and thousands of miles away, a death by drowning in London. The connection? When I wrote that opening, I didn’t know.

So just now I’m just waiting for my editor’s ‘few little tweaks’ (Ha!), and in the meantime I’m putting together a short story for an anthology, writing a ‘for fun’ book about vampires, and trying to get my head around the next book (I want to set part of it in Lodz, in the university…. I think that a terrible crime has been committed, and hasn’t yet come to light, but part of the aftermath…anyway, that’s for later).

Next posting, I’m going to address the translations issue. I was Chair of the Crime Writers’ Association when we decided to take translated books out of the Gold (now the Duncan Lawrie) Dagger, a decision that has been criticised (fair enough) and misunderstood. So watch this space.

Being a Chair

July 17th, 2005

This year, I’m the Chairperson the Crime Writers Association (the CWA). It’s going to be a busy year, becasue I am also working for Edexcel, developing a new and interestingly innovative course for them. (We know we’re on the right lines, because the Prince of Wales has called it ‘an abomination’). As well as that, I am going to a Forensic Linguistics conference in Lodz in September – I am beginning to think around a character who is a forensic linguist, whose work is to look at the language of a crime and interpet that. I don’t know much about her yet, but I hope to soon.

The big event of the CWA year is the Awards lunch in November. This takes a lot of organisation and planning – there are plenty of people working on it, but any disasters will be my responsibility – so it’s a big deal. I’ll be able to breathe after 8th November – but I am flying to Australia on the 9th – twenty four hours of flying with a two hour break in Hong Kong. I’ll be seeing my niece and nephew for the first time – Joanna will be seven by then, and Nick is three. It seems terrible that I haven’t seen them before, but it’s hard to find the time to make such an extended journey.

I hope to have ‘Strangers’ finished by then. With a bit of luck, it will be with my editor, and then I can come back and get down to the rewrites. There are characters I will be sad to say goodbye to, particularly Damien, and Roisin. Maybe I should do what most crime writers do, and develop a series character. Maybe my forensic linguist would be the person. Watch this space.

Fiction and reality

July 13th, 2005

A problem a lot of writers have is the way in which fiction and reality can interact. You can be working on something, and find that the real world has not only caught up with you, but gone beyond anything you, as a writer, had felt able to consider.

The book I am currently working on has events set in the Middle East. A problem with writing books set in such volatile areas is that changes occur so rapidly, your book can be out of date before it’s written.

But the situation of westerers living in the Middle East is fascinating, as is the view that two sharply divided cultural groups have of each other. Many Saudi women, for example, want change in their lives, but become very angry at the downtrodden stereotype that their western counterparts have of them. Saudi women work, some of them hold down high level jobs. They are politically savvy and know what they want – and it isn’t us telling them what to do.

Western women – in the Saudi stereotype – are given to drink, promiscuous behaviour, drugs and revealing clothes. We lose our virginity at the age of twelve, are just as downtrodden as Saudi women – no more, no less. And we are thrown onto our own devices as we have no one who will take care of us.

The book I’m working on is called Strangers. (The title may change – publishers have their own ideas) but this is what it’s about. As the world get smaller, we’re all strangers in places that have, paradoxically, come closer.

What my father wrote

April 1st, 2005

Cattle train trundle slowly, ever so slowly. Mamusia taking us home, her two children Michel 10 and Jan 5. Cattle train consist of 25 wagons, each wagon has sliding doors on each side. In the middle there was iron stove. In each wagon housed two families. We were lucky. The other family was high ranking Russian officer, Admiral, and his Polish wife. He was let off becasue he was wounded (lost his leg) in Japanese 1905 war. His artificial leg was filled with golden roubles. As soon as so called Red Army police started to look, leg was put back and nobody found them.

Our menu varies a lot.
For breakfast – grass
For lunch – grass
For dinner – grass
but if we lucky, when train stop near the nettles then nettle soup was very acceptable.
I remember once when train was put to the sidings among many C wagons, Michel and Jan was searching and to our delight we found one potato. We debated what to do, to take this potato to Mama. Michel declare we consume it straight. He then proceed to cut it on half and we gobble it down. I had stomach upset and Michel had diarrhoea. Luckily we stayed on that siding several days.

The egg episode
Again train stop. The driver refused to move and demanded that whole lot of passengers start loading the coal from heap to locomotive tender. That lasted for four days. Our admiral was excepted from this task on account of his missing leg. So off he went to the nearest village and in the evening brought two eggs. One of the egg he gave to my Mama. That evening Mama boiled the eggs and divided between Michel and me. We ate shell and the egg. From the water in which egg was boiled, she make soup with addition of nettle but that was for her

Launching a book

March 21st, 2005

8th March
The Forest of Souls is published. Always an edgy time – two years work condensed into published pages. Are they going to like it? (good) Hate it? (bad) Ignore it? (terrible). The launch party is in a couple of days, publicity events here and there.
We travel across the Pennines to Hale in Cheshire – book event at the library. There’s a good crowd, about 40 people. They had to turn people away as they’d sold all the tickets. Wine, tea, coffee. I want wine, opt for coffee, and talk about the book.
I tell them about my father, about the stories he used to tell about his childhood in Belarus, about the house that my grandfather built in the forest, and as I talk, I can remember writing this bit of the book: Once upon a time, there was a forest….and a man called Stanislau built a house…. It seems like a long time ago. I read a couple of short sections – the bit about Eva and the trains in the forest, and the bit where Sophia Yevanova tells Jake about the prisoners in the cellars of the NKVD building. Lots of good feedback.

10th March
The launch party went really well. A bit too well. I’m distinctly hungover, but everyone seemed to have a good time and the bookshop sold loads of books. I talked for about fifteen minutes, but didn’t do any readings. It would have interrupted the party a bit too much. I didn’t have time to talk to people for very long – just raced round hello, lovely to see, you, thank for coming, hello
We went to The Mediterranean after for something to eat, and with the release of tension, we all got high and drank far too much wine, but it was all good.

13th March
Interview with the Yorkshire Post today. I’ve done the local papers – interviews over the phone. They all want to know why I’ve changed my name. They want to keep Danuta Reah, Sheffield writer. I explain that The Forest of Souls is a bit different, and the publishers think they can reach a wider audience with a new name. Carla Banks, found on a gravestone in Highgate cemetary. Hi, Carla.
The journalist from the Yorkshire Post wanted more background on my fahter, so I went through his papers. I found some of the things he had written in the last few years, and was reminded again of why I wanted to write the book. There was a poem about the last time he saw his mother:
1938
I didn’t see you
1939
was too late.
Do you remember when
you came to see me
standing on Gorzon Station?
‘Where is Janek? Did he forget to meet me?’
And when I crept behind you
picked you off the ground
and twirl. And you pleaded
‘Put me down.
Put me down Janek.
What all these people will say?’
And then you kiss me and ruffle my hair.

Trainsmanship, or Fall Down the Gap

October 12th, 2003

Fall down the gap

You’re a rail traveller. You’ve been on the platform for 40 minutes, your train is not only delayed, it appears to be non-existent. The waiting room smells and is draughty. The Public Address System tells you periodically that bing bong your custom is valuable bing bong. You are cold, wet and tired. It’s going to get worse. You have got yourself caught up in the great train game.

In the bad old days pre-privatisation, the only game to play was Monopoly. It was tricky getting hold of a ticket, passing Go was cause for celebration, but everyone knew the rules and you got to where you were going. Eventually.

The new system is different. The games are many and varied and the unwary – or even the wary – commuter is likely to come unstuck. To help you out, here are some of the currently more popular games and the rules to help you survive. Play on:

1. Hunt the Train. This is when the commuter stands at platform 3a. The departures screen says that the 0815 to Retford is here, at this platform. The public address system summons the players: The train now standing at platform 3a is the 0815 to Retford. There is, however, no train. There is a rather ramshackle affair about twenty yards away at platform 3b that no one seems to own. The destination on the front of this train is ‘Sheffield’. As this is Sheffield station, this seems logical. A walk to the back of the train tells the commuter that this end is going to Sheffield too, because this train is playing:

2.Commuters bluff. This is an easy one, and simply involves concealing the destination of the train from would-be travellers for as long as possible. A variation of this is Platform Jump. This involves parking a train that is heading to, say, Ashby-de-la-Zouche, next to a screen that says: 0815 to Retford. 30 seconds before lift off, the on-train team welcome the passengers aboard the 0813 to Ashby-de-la-Zouche. Points are scored for the number of passengers trapped by the closing doors as they scramble to exit.

3.Slow Attrition. For quiet days. This is usually played in combination with Hunt the train. When the Hunt the Train players are lined up on the platform and on their marks, the announcement is made ‘We are sorry that the 0815 to Retford is delayed by approximately 10 minutes.’ This is announced at 8.28. The announcement is repeated, adding increments of five minutes to the delay, at seven minute intervals. After about 40 minutes, the game switches to:

4.Musical Platforms. This game is played after several rounds of Slow Attrition. When the commuters who have been playing are reduced to full zombie mode on platform 3, the game can start. The public address system announces: The train about to depart from platform 22 is the delayed 0815 to Retford. This is best played in stations with a lot of stairs and bridges, and long distances between platforms. It works best if not all the stairs and bridges lead to all platforms, or if repairs are underway and the crucial staircase is blocked off at the last possible exit point: We are sorry for the inconvenience. Passengers for platform 22 are advised to cross the bridge and use the stairway from the far end of platform 1.

5.Two Trains for the Price of One. One train – two destinations! Half way through the journey, the train splits. One half goes to – for example – Hastings and the other half goes to – again for example – Littlehampton. Passengers are told, at the start of the game, that the front of the train will go to Hastings. All train operatives then hide. The passengers have to guess whether the front of the train is the end that came into the station first or the end that will leave the station first. As the train is also playing Commuters Bluff, consulting either end of the train will not help. NB to players: it is not advisable to stand in the middle with one foot in one end of the train, the other foot in the other and your possession clutched in your arms. You may find yourself involved in a game of Snap.

6.Now you see me, now you don’t. Usually played after a round of Slow Attrition and a few rounds of Musical Platforms. The public address system announces: We are sorry that the 0815 to Retford has been cancelled. This is repeated until three train loads of passengers who have had a good morning honing their games skills are queuing in the station. The game then switches to a popular variation on Two Trains for the Price of One, aka:

7.One Train for the Price of Three. It’s usually six carriages long. Now it’s two. There are three train-loads of people waiting to catch it. Which leaves everyone ideally placed for a game of

8.Squash.
The important rule to remember is this: you’re the passenger. You can’t win.

Writers on the Road

June 10th, 2003

Stephen Booth, Donald Hale and Danuta Reah hit the mid-west

Danuta Reah, Stephen Booth and Donald Hale

It was Kathryn Kennison’s idea. It was one of those late evenings in the bar at Magna cum Murder, and she started talking about a mid-west tour for British writers, sometime in the spring.

Ten-thirty and three Coronas into the evening, it all sounded like a good idea, which was how Don Hale and I came to be landing in Columbus, Ohio on a windy May evening, nervously watching the wings of the plane yawing recklessly as it skimmed a few feet above the ground.

‘It’ll come in on one wheel, flip over and land upside down,’ was Don’s prediction. ‘Wingtip landing, cartwheel, die horribly,’ was mine. With five pounds sterling running on the outcome, it was probably not too surprising that the plane landed with little more than a bounce and deposited us at the terminal. Ooo! Skyscrapers! We were in the US, and the tour was about to begin.

Don and I stayed for two nights in Columbus. Our hotel seemed to cover a vast acreage, but had a certain magical quality, to wit: it didn’t matter which direction you walked, if you kept going for long enough, you ended up back in the lobby. There was a pool, a bar, a dining room, staff, but – apart from a wedding party on Saturday night – no visible guests.

Small digression here: Every hotel room has a shower, and every shower works differently. The guest is faced with a row of buttons, taps and levers which can be pushed, pulled, turned, yanked, twisted or pressed. If the correct manoeuvres are carried out – in the correct order – a shower can be obtained. NB: Jumping up and down and shouting ‘shit’ doesn’t – usually – work. My strategy is to push, pull, turn, yank, twist and press everything in sight until something happens. To date, I have managed to get a shower in every hotel I have ever visited (apart from the Jubilienya in Minsk, but that’s another story.)

The showers at the Columbus hotel offered something called a ‘massage’ facility. My shower strategy failed to find this, but it did find the police riot-control facility. This hit me amidships with a jet of water, pinned me to the back of the stall and efficiently removed about six layers of skin before I could fight my way back to the controls and switch it off. I didn’t consult Don about his experience with the showers (a lady does not ask a fellow traveller about his bathroom habits) but I did notice that he, like me, looked exceptionally clean and a little subdued.

Monday, 5th May, and Kathryn Kennison arrived to take us to our first venue, Foul Play Books in Westerville, Ohio. We went to the airport to pick up Stephen on the way. (Ooo! A parking lot!) We swept into the arrivals hall a good fifteen minutes early, and waited by the baggage check for half an hour, while Stephen, whose plane had got in early, waited by the passenger pick-up point about five yards away. Crime writers don’t like to concern themselves with minor details like the exact location of a meeting – we like to use our instincts. That was the verdict of Don, Steve and me anyway. Kathryn’s verdict was possibly a tad more pungent.

Foul Play Books was in a street of those houses that look indisputably American to the English eye – wood, painted, with gables and a porch. It was just the way an old bookshop should be – tiny rooms lined with shelves and the numbers and kinds of books that give you an ache in your credit card. The evening was warm, and we sat outside the shop in the yard for the event, with a group of keen mystery enthusiasts who listened to what we had to say, laughed in all the right places and asked a lot of good questions. It was a good start to the tour. Dick and Kathryn then drove us to Muncie, our base for the next three nights.

At this point I would like to propose a vote of thanks and a minute’s respectful silence for Dick who drove from Muncie to Dublin, Dublin to Columbus airport, Columbus airport to Westerville, and Westerville to Muncie, with no complaint.

Tuesday 6th May was Jim Huang’s shop at Carmel – Mystery and Company. Another book-fest and more damage to the credit card. The shop is very new – it has only been open a few months, but Jim’s enthusiasm for and knowledge about crime fiction is already attracting good audiences to his events. Dick and Kathryn sat through the talk they’d heard the night before (the minor details might change, but we tended to tell the same stories) maintaining an appearance of being interested and alert. While we are into votes of thanks, I will just say here that they sat through two more events with that same look of enjoyment. In my book, we’re into medal territory here.

Stephen and I had started, inadvertently, competing for the best Yorkshire Ripper story, as we both had tenuous connections with that particularly unpleasant serial killer. Don, as a journalist, was soon able to join in with this, so there was a Yorkshire Ripper element to the rest of the tour

Wednesday afternoon, Kathryn took us shopping. (Ooo! Wal-Mart!). I didn’t think I had bought much, but by the time we came to leave Muncie, we all seemed to have added a few house-bricks to our cases.

Brief digression: if you ever want to breed house-bricks, pack a suitcase and go on a long trip. A pair of house-bricks will be nesting before day three. They will be raising quintuplet grandchildren by the end of the first week.

Wednesday 7th, we did an event at the Ball Centre in Muncie – a beautiful old house that was once a family home, with Tiffany glass and chandeliers and inlaid floors – a lesson in gracious living.

Thursday 8th, it was time to leave Muncie and move on to Kokomo. We were appearing at the South Branch library, a light and airy building with huge windows. Once again the indefatigable Kennisons drove us, and Dick and Kathryn listened for a fourth time to our Yorkshire Ripper stories, Stephen’s tales of how he got his non-reading parents enrolled in the library and reading fiction, my tales of scary people in deserted railway stations and Don’s tales of burned out cars and Mafia heists.

We said our farewells to Kathryn and Dick at this point. The following morning we picked up our rental car. (Ooo! Automatic transmission!). British cars mostly have manual transmission, and it takes a little getting used to a car that does most of that work for you. Also, in my view, Americans don’t bring their machines up to have a proper respect. The car we rented was extremely demanding and refused to go unless we complied with all its requirements. It was prone to beep complainingly if it had a minor disagreement about driving methods (though in fairness I suppose Stephen shouldn’t have attempted to drive it with the hand-brake on).

It was a blazing hot day as we set out for Ann Arbor. I’ll correct that. It was a blazing hot day by Brit standards. (Ooo! Sun!) It was probably a temperate day by US standards. The drive was easy enough, though it is sobering to drive for four and a half hours and realise how little of the map you have covered. In the UK, four and a half hours covers a substantial amount of it. Don and Stephen shared the driving, and I, as non-driver, put my feet up in the back.

We swept up to the Campus Inn at Ann Arbor in style, and stopped at the entrance to get our bags out. The bellhop asked Don to move the car to one side, and it was at that point that the vehicle got the bit between its teeth. It shut Don in the car and refused to move. In desperation, Don tried the shower technique (push, pull, twist, yank, press, jump up and down and shout shit) to get it moving or to persuade it to let him out, while Steve and the bellhop offered conflicting advice from the outside and a yellow cab helpfully sounded its horn. Steve and I cravenly scarpered, and Don retreated to park the car (and, incidentally, beat the living daylights out of it).

We had planned a half hour’s rest before we meandered along to the shop, but we’d forgotten that we’d crossed a time-line. We had just under half an hour to dump our bags and get to the shop. I have never put my make-up on so fast. If you hear about Krusty the Clown having made a recent appearance at Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, that was probably me.

At Aunt Agatha’s (more aargh! from the credit card), we were joined by Alan Gordon, writer of medieval mysteries. We adapted our routine accordingly – a good thing, as we were all getting a bit familiar with each other’s stories. The audience was lively, chatty and interested, and we had a really good evening, but as it ended, we realised that the tour was almost over.

The drive from Ann Arbor to Milwaukee was the longest. The internet said it would take us about five and a half hours. People in Ann Arbor gave us estimates that varied from six to eight hours. We set off at eight the next morning, so our experience of Ann Arbor was a brief view as we drove in, a race to the bookshop, a stroll around a café and bar area, and a bleary-eyed morning departure. It looks like a pretty town, and I would like to see it again in a slightly more leisurely way.

In the event, five and a half hours would have been about right, if our exit to Milwaukee hadn’t been closed. The detour took us into an area that got more and more boarded up, more and more littered with abandoned vehicles, and then dumped us in front of a large ‘We mug dumb Brits and steal their cars’ sign.

We beat a hasty retreat, and then drove round aimlessly for a while. Steve swore he wasn’t lost, and somehow or another, we ended up outside Mystery One. Luck or an unerring sense of direction? You can be the judges. The store was full of familiar faces from RAM, and the tour ended with a party at the Jordans’ – good company, good food, good beer, good margaritas. We staggered back to the hotel after midnight.

Brief digression: I am a notoriously unlucky traveller. Delayed flights, stolen credit cards, road rage chases – they all happen to me. This time, as I proudly told Annie and Sandi at the party, nothing bad had happened. The jinx was broken. Oh, yeah?

Don and I were to fly back together. We had a short hop from Milwaukee to Chicago, with a brief wait before we boarded out flight to Manchester. The timing was maybe a bit tight, but what can go wrong between Milwaukee and Chicago? We took the hotel bus to Milwaukee airport in time for a two-hour check-in, put our bags through X-Ray, had the bags opened, and then checked them in. Then we took ourselves through security. We took our laptops out of their cases, put everything into plastic trays, sent it all through X-Ray, went through the metal detectors, got patted down, retrieved our baggage, put the laptops back in their cases and were in the departure lounge in time for coffee and bagels. No problem.

Ten minutes before take-off, the Chicago flight was cancelled. Aaargh! Back through security, bags out of check-in, bus to Chicago, into the airport, bags through X-Ray, bags opened, bags checked in. Security, laptops out, bags through X-Ray, us through metal detector, laptops in, marathon sprint to gate. We chased the plane down the runway and grabbed its undercarriage as it took off. (Actually, I’m lying, but that’s what it felt like)

Tour summary: High points: too many to mention. To pick out a few – so many friendly people, seeing Lake Michigan, visiting the Ball Centre, the party at the Jordans’, Ruth’s apple pie. Low points: the tea. What’s so hard about pouring boiling water on tea-leaves, you guys?

So, home, jet-lagged but happy. It was a good tour, and we will be back.