Monday, August 21, 2017

Policing British East Africa

Annamaria on Monday

First a confession:  My modus operandi when starting a new book is to research broadly, keeping story possibilities in the back of mind.  At some point, my characters start moving around in their time and place—doing and saying things.  I follow them and write down their words and their actions.  Eventually, the adventure takes shape, and I am off and running on a workable first draft. 

I was, in this way, about the begin the fourth chapter of Strange Gods when I realized that I knew nothing about how the police force operated in British East Africa.  I had a good idea who Tolliver was.  He had had an encounter with some South African drunks who were shooting up a hotel bar.  He was about to go out to the Scottish Mission to investigate the murder of Dr. Josiah Pennyman.   It suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea of the historical context for such an investigation.   I sent myself back to the research salt mines.  Google quickly got me to a monograph called “Policing the Empire” by a Cambridge scholar.  Its first two footnotes referred to a memoire—A Cuckoo in Kenya—by an Anglo-Irish police officer, W. Robert Foran who served in BEA from 1905-09.  Pay dirt!  Just my research cup of tea—the recollections of someone who had feet on the ground there and then.   And of course, my precious New York Public Library had a copy.  I dug right in.  I got to know Foran and his lifestyle.

But I did not to give my Justin Tolliver Foran’s rather devil-may-care, jolly attitude toward law enforcement by a colonial power.   Based on what I gleaned from Foran’s story, I imagined what life for a man with Tolliver's attitudes would be like once he joined the police.  I gave my particular policeman a deep-seated regard for justice.  This, I imagined, would not coincide with the motivations of his superiors in the government.  It was all intuitive for me, a way of creating an atmosphere that served my story.

That scenario served well in that first of the series and in the following two books.  Then, just over a month ago, preparing to crawl my way into Vera and Tolliver 4, I found a new research source—a 1994 paper by a sociologist that wasn’t on the Internet when I started work on the series back in 2013: “Law Enforcement in British Colonial Africa.”  The paper explained to me how right I was about the difference between Tolliver’s idea of policing and what his King’s empire builders would require of him.

Here is what this new information confirmed for me:  When it came to law enforcement, in the end of the Nineteenth and beginning of the Twentieth Centuries, the British had two models: One for their island home and another for the “possessions.”

The Home police, the Metropolitan Police Force established in 1829 in London, became the pattern for almost all towns and cities in the British Isles.  These policemen were civilians whose job it was to enforce the law, prevent crime, and keep the peace.  They lived in the communities where they worked, were accountable for their own actions, and never under the direct command of the governmentally powerful.  They were unarmed.

In the territories of the Empire, the model was based on the Royal Irish Constabulary.   This police force was established in 1836 to put down disturbances that had arisen in British-occupied Ireland.  Unlike their Metropolitan distant cousins, these men were a semi-military, armed force.  They were commanded by their superiors, whom they were required to obey.  They lived in barracks, rather than the communities they policed.  Their main function was to support the ends of their government as it took control of new territory—to aid in Britain’s conquest, to support the economic and political goals of the British government. They upheld what passed for British Law only when it suited them.

In fact, outside of areas where the British had political or economic interests, there was no British “law enforcement” in BEA.

This approach to policing was not limited to BEA.  It was well established in India before the British entered East Africa.  Once the Protectorate of BEA was formed, they then found it convenient to import officers from service in India, to use the Indian Code of Law, and to bring in lesser police officials from the Raj.  This happened to such an extent that in BEA, the police records were kept in Urdu!

Now I know what “really” happened.  When Tolliver joined the force, he was imagining joining a Metropolitan Police-style organization.  But he found himself in an African incarnation of the Royal Irish Constabulary.  And he was just where I needed him to be: a man at odds with his surroundings.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Surprised by Unexpected Joy*

-- Susan, every other Sunday.

*Given the state of the world, we need all the unexpected joy we can find, anywhere we can find it.

I woke up on the morning of July 10, 2017 -- the last full day of my research-and-graduation-celebration trip to Japan with my son -- with plans to shoot some last-minute research photos at Sensoji, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple.

Incense burning before a memorial stone at Sensoji.

I'd already visited the temple once, on the first full day of our trip, but it had rained:

Rain on Nakamise Street - with the temple gate in the background.

Which made shooting research images (both at Sensoji and at neighboring Asakusa Shrine) challenging:

Shrine guardian in the rain.

Since my son had plans with friends, I hopped the Ginza Line subway and emerged in the shopping street near Sensoji. People thronged the streets, packed even more tightly than I anticipated. Sensoji is a popular tourist spot, as well as a functioning Buddhist temple, but I hadn't expected such a crowd.

The reason for all the people became apparent as I reached the gate: unbeknownst to me, I'd arrived on a festival day:

Since I'd never experienced a Japanese shrine or temple festival, I was beyond thrilled. (For this, I was even willing to overcome my usual distaste for crowds.)

Food vendors lined the pathways all around the temple grounds, selling a variety of festival treats.

Slushy drinks, Fried Chicken, and CHOCO BANANA on a stick.

He's selling giant crab legs. Seriously. I'm not kidding.

Other stalls sold beautiful ground cherry pod plants and stalks, as well as hand-painted glass lanterns.

Ground cherry pod, aka "Chinese Lantern Plant"
The scent of plants and the tinkling of lanterns filled the air, along with a pleasantly cooling mist from spritzers hanging above the stalls.

Plants or pods, the choice is up to you.

Asakusa Jinja, a Shinto shrine that sits adjacent to the worship hall at Sensoji, was also celebrating.

Entrance to Asakusa Jinja
Tanabata trees lined the approach to the shrine, in recognition of the July festival commemorating the once-a-year heavenly meeting of the weaver and the cowherd.

People write wishes on colored paper and tie them to the tanabata tree.

A vendor just inside the shrine was selling one of the coolest festival drinks in Tokyo right now: a flavored slush composed of shaved ice, sparkling water and flavored syrup, served in a plastic lightbulb and adorned with a smaller, LED light-up lightbulb toy.

Japanese slushy drink! (Not too sweet.)

The day was hot, and I was thirsty, so I bought one--in the name of research.

The grape one was so tasty I went back for a lemon one later on.

While I sat in the shade, enjoying my treat, a Japanese woman approached me and said, "You're so lucky! You're here today!"

"Thank you!" I said, "It was a surprise - I didn't realize today was a festival."

Her grin got even bigger. "You didn't know! So lucky! Today is the day of 46,000 prayers. Do you know this festival?"

When I admitted ignorance, she explained:

"We believe that if you pray at Sensoji on July 10, it's the same as saying 46,000 prayers. Also, today is also the ground cherry plant festival, so you get two matsuri (festivals) in one! You really didn't know?"

I shook my head. "I didn't. This is my last day in Japan, and I wanted to spend it at Sensoji."

She clapped her hands in delight. "You are so lucky. Make sure to say a prayer today. It will count 46,000 times."

I promised I would, and thanked her, and she headed off to the worship hall.

Although I'd only planned to spend a couple of hours at the shrine, I scratched the rest of my plans and spent the entire day enjoying festival food, shooting photos, watching people, and reveling in the presence of hundreds of happy people enjoying a day at the festival.

The hozomon gate, as seen from the worship hall veranda.

Children laughed and ran around. Teenagers ate iced sodas, fries, and takoyaki (deep-fried octopus balls - a festival favorite). Adults of all ages strolled the grounds, bought ground cherry plants, and admired the tinkling lanterns that hung everywhere.

Ground cherry pods on display.

I saw people of many races (though admittedly, most were Japanese), both tourists and natives, Buddhists and people who doubtless belonged to other religions yet had come to see this lovely and important holy place.

Everyone loves a matsuri.

I didn't see a single unhappy face the entire day, and I don't know when I last saw such a large group of people enjoying themselves so much.

Festival booths with the Tokyo Skytree in the background.

Eventually I had to leave to meet my son for our final dinner in Tokyo and a trip to the Owl Cafe, but before I did, I said a prayer, as the Japanese woman suggested.

More accurately, I said 46,000 prayers, all the same: that everyone in the world could experience the kind of unexpected, unadulterated joy I had that day.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

An Updated Zilly View of Mykonos


Four years ago I offered a view of Mykonos in August, captured by my partner in Crime, Barbara Zilly.  Back then her focus was on pencils and pastels, plus stealing away for a few hours from her portraits of children and dogs to visit her special places of inspiration with her camera.  But then she discovered oils!   Above and below are some of her more recent pencil drawings of the canine persuasion (plus one cat and kid), followed by examples of her oils inspired by the images of Mykonos.

Now onto photos of Barbara's favorite island places...followed by some of her oils.  By the way, I photographed these oils secretly, solely to share her talent with you.  And I did so at great personal risk, for Lord knows what will happen when she learns what I've done.  







My favorite oil of our favorite place...

And last--but not least--what Barbara's working on back in NYC...


Friday, August 18, 2017

To Ben Cleuch and beyond....

This week I have been out and about driving across the country to a place called Tillicoultry, deep in the shadows of Ben Cleuch. It turned out to be one of those beautiful events, it was as if the entire village had turned out to see me.  I don't think a lot goes on In Tillicoultry. The Sava centre shut at 6pm and my event was on at  7.

There were people standing at the back and sitting on the stairs, and there was that most marvellous of sights; a big pile of books turning into a small pile of books as people bought them. It was also pleasing to see a few teenagers there, who also went on to buy books. In Scotland, school leavers had just found out the previous week how they got on in their big exams and if they were going on into the University of their choice. One girl said she was going on to do chemical engineering. 'Oh,' I said, 'Are you going to work on weapons of mass destruction.'  'Yes,' she replied, smiling sweetly.
I had elected to be interviewed by Ian Keane, who was a very charming young man with his best tie on and what I later found out was a newly rumped hair do. I judged from the conversation that his parents were in the audience and he knew the young attractive female bookseller well enough to give her a bit of the banter. To non Scots this sounds like swapping very rude insults, but it's basically being 'pals with insults' which is not the same as 'friends with benefits'. 

We had an initial chit chat about books, life the universe and somebody in the audience pointed out that Ian had been challenged to write a Mills and Boons book - big mistake, i think he realized as I turned in my seat and said..Oh really.

It was probably a drunken bet over a late night curry but of course I knew now. So I asked him how many words he had, 10,000 but that's a detailed synopsis he said - he's not started the book yet. I told him the average Mills and Boon reader might not be able to cope with that much plot. He said the book was about a shepherdess, I asked if the shepherdess had a faithful border Collie - oh shit he said, I'd better put one in. It would seem unromantic to have the shepherdess tootilling around in a quad bike.
                                           an ochil

                                                                  two yokels

I could now see the hatred in his eyes, I have that effect  on most men.  I asked him what the title of the novel was and he responded - twilight in the Ochils. The locals in the audience heard twilight in the ochils, we far flung Glaswegians of which there was many in the audience, burst out laughing as we heard - toilet in the yokels. So once we got that sorted out, he explained it was twilight because it was a bit like the twilight series on the tv, and the Ochils were the range of hills that go across Scotland around Stirling and Perth. Those of you who have been to Bloody Scotland have probably perched on an Ochil. 

                                                  some american yokels

Crap title, I said with my usual subtlety  and then explained in a helpful way while being totally insulting, about the Brataslava effect and how you would only know what an Ochil was if you were local. I then went on with the help of the audience to expand his novel for him. As it was a Mills and Boon we should incorporate a Colin Firth type in a wet shepherd's outfit lying face down in a babbling burn ( small river !) and the shepherdess can come along and save him, although at this point the novel deviated towards the horror genre when I suggested it might be nice if Mr Firth was dead and his back covered in the hoofprints of the feral goats that are known to roam the moors. 

I don't think he thought much of my suggestion, but the audience were keen to see the film and kept adding ideas for product placement, the  casting couch and it it have enough legs to be the next Game Of Thrones.  The Feral Goats Of Ochil  doesn't have the same ring...
                                                          A toilet
Afterwards, he was saying that he's actually a huge sci fi fan and I said that a good story is a good story and can be set anywhere - in any genre, in any time or place. A faraway look came into his eye and he said he has a recurring sentence that comes into his mind, and the sentence was 'the shadow of the dark son...'.
                                            some feral goats...

That's not a sentence from the novel you numpty I said, that sounds more like the title of the book!

 I considered my work done. I had signed books, made people laugh and I had totally confused someone who spoke like he might be a really good writer and could be my opposition in a couple of years time.  I don't need the competition.

nice ochils!
Time to go home and eat chocolate

Caro Ramsay  18 08 2017

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The North South Divide

Today’s guest post is by Frank Owen—or if you prefer today’s guest posts are by Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer, because Diane and Alex write novels together under the name Frank Owen. They are both well-known South African authors in their own right. Diane has won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa and the Caribbean) for her novel, Gardening at Night, and is a teacher, reviewer, and poet. Alex wrote The Space Race for adults, and also writes and illustrates children’s books. An unlikely combination to write a dystopian and totally scary alternative history thriller set in the United States? Don’t judge until you’ve read South. Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz loved it—Lotz called it a “post-apocalyptic game changer.”

They take us to a US where the civil war didn’t happen until much later, when unification of the North and the South became more a matter of political ambition than of policy. By the time the war does happen, it has many modern warfare horrors available and spirals into germ warfare. The North uses the wind and multiple mutated viruses to destroy the South, and also builds a wall across the continent to enforce the separation. (This idea seems to remind me of something but I can't quite place it...) The world that Diane and Alex build on this foundation is as real and bitter as McCarthy’s The Road.

Alex and Diane chose to write one piece each linked to the background of the book. Here’s Diane on research for the book and more:

Fun guy

One thing leads to another. It’s true of murder mysteries; it’s true of life.
And it’s also true for research – which for me is one of the enduring joys of writing: that sense of being a scholar, of filling myself up with the collective knowledge around a subject that has piqued my interest, of discovery for its own sake. It’s a luxury. It requires time. It requires the right amount of neglect by other people so writers can get it done.  
And we can’t, of course, ever know our areas completely, but that is the other joy – of rediscovery, or of the strange-making of the familiar.
Dead by Alex Latimer
What first interested me passionately about South was Alex’s annotated illustrations of the plot. He actually had the whole story – the big picture – stored somewhere in his head. And the final image (a doodle, really) was of a cowboy lying dead, with mushrooms springing from his corpse. There was something spare but also terrifically visceral about that kind of sacrifice, and it plugged in visually to all sorts of stories and films I’d been encountering my whole life.
Not least of it was the Christian mythology of sacrifice and rebirth, which is, as we all know, really an enduringly pagan story: the Green Man, Yggdrasil, Isis and Osiris. It recurs in every culture, and there’s a reason: the archetype is real. It speaks to us. That little pencil illustration spoke to me.
It spoke most directly to my background in trauma studies: how some people recover from personal and communal trauma, and how some people never do. As I get older I’m beginning to understand that it’s not the terrible thing that has happened that counts. It’s what you do the morning after – how your body has its own way of dealing with grief; how your mind has these wonderful coping mechanisms it can turn on and off.
South isn’t only an escapist tract. It also seems to be about how people live – or don’t live – in the aftermath of stupid, horrendous political decisions that have direct and damaging effects on their lives. But we also wanted it to be real in the sense that all the remedies that people are experimenting with in the novel could actually be replicated in the event of a viral onslaught – not unlike the ones we’re experiencing already.
Mushrooms by Alex Latimer
The mushrooms filled that gap nicely. I started seeing them everywhere: in shops, of course, and online (when you do that Google search, you want to be super-specific about your terms…), in Chinese medicine and New Age remedies and Christmas baubles and funerary practices, in the artist Jae Rhim Lee’s mushroom burial suit that was seeded with spores.
But the surprising and satisfying thing for me was that they had been there all along, in more ancient settings: as the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, in Buddhist carvings, in monks’ illuminated manuscripts. I just had to look with new eyes.
If we’re lucky, that is what happens with research. It flips a switch somewhere in our minds that allows us to see beyond the literal, to make connections between things, ideas, and people: to see, ultimately, how it all fits together, and what our place is in that order.

And that’s really what we’re here to do, as humans: that reaching out is at the heart of most religious cosmologies, and at the heart of why we write novels. The best books are summations of the experience and wisdom of other people. They’re trying to pass it along, spreading the stubborn, healthy spores so that we can regenerate, as individuals, as communities. So that we can survive, and thrive.

Weather map by Alex Latimer
And Alex tells us why they chose the US as the place to set the story, and the rather surprising outcome:

R of SA vs US of A
It wasn’t an easy decision to set South in the USA. We’ve been to New York and Florida to visit and teach, but those places aren’t representative of the entire country. But there was the obvious draw of the American market over the South African one. A few years ago I was on a science fiction and fantasy podcast with Lauren Beukes and she mentioned that her novel The Shining Girls had become a bestseller in in South Africa. I cheekily asked her how many sales make a bestseller here. The podcast host almost choked when he heard her answer: I think it was a couple of thousand, which for Americans is approximately the number of review copies a publisher sends out before a book hits the shelves.
I know money isn’t everything, but it’s definitely something.
The decision to set South in America was experimental. Both Diane and I have published locally and we knew what to expect if we chose to go that route again: some nice reviews and brief celebrations at literary festivals, but no one’s giving up their day job. Aiming overseas was unpredictable and exciting. Besides, why even write under a pseudonym if you’re not going to change things up a little?
But even after we’d decided on America, the whole notion still felt uncomfortable. The uneasiness for me came down to my own right to set a novel in America. I felt as though I was betraying some unwritten agreement between author and reader: ‘Write what you know’ and all of that.
But as soon as we started on writing the actual chapters, those worries evaporated. I found that I knew what Colorado looked like. I knew how people talked there and how they dressed. I knew the rivers and the colour of the dirt: the Internet helped with the names of the plants and the trees, but everything else was there inside my mind. How do I know what a diner in Nebraska looks like? The answer is that America has been culturally colonising the rest of the world for decades. We’ve all grown up on a diet of Clint Eastwood and Coca Cola and Nike and Hollywood blockbusters. It’s so entrenched in our minds that writing in America is like writing in a genre of its own. And feeling bad about turning it round and sending it back to Americans suddenly seemed like a quaint notion - like the owner of a burger stand worrying about the business he might be stealing from McDonalds.
We also have tame American readers, so we make sure that the facts are the facts. One turned out to be from the exact town we were using, and he was happy with the accuracy of the novel. His main criticism was that he couldn’t remember that particular grass growing on the top of that particular ridge. Otherwise, we were spot on.
But there were more surprises along the way. Setting a novel outside of your home territory is also strangely illuminating. As South African authors we’re never going to move away from writing about South African issues, even if the setting changes. We care too much. South is about segregation and the impact that has on the people on both sides of the dividing line. It’s apartheid. Once that ideology is given a common culture, readers can begin to imagine how they’d have reacted given similar circumstances.

The punchline to all of this is South is published globally, but we’ve yet to sell the American rights. So until that happens, maybe I’m wrong about everything. You’ll have to judge for yourself.

More about Frank Owen and the book at