Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Old Man's Hair: The Official Tail


A staging post has been reached. 
The Old Man has refused to get his hair cut for so long ... now, it can be pony-tailed. Of course, he can't actually do the essential styling himself. That job falls to me ... along with explanations as to the tools necessary for the job - suitable hairbrush, them little elasticky things to twist round it, and so on. 
But it stops him complaining about eating his hair for lunch. And it do fool some people, who think it is important that he do so, that he has cut his hair. And it do give him and me some kind of retro joy. And at our age and in these times we need all the joy we can get.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Greydoll's Criminal Reading: "The Catalyst Killing" by Hans Olav Lahlum


Back in 1970, I was a student. It was a time of revolution, rebellion and sitting-in. This didn't happen much in my own college... which was a great source of disappointment to some of our tutors who, I think, fancied themselves as being at the heart of change. But then teaching (yeah, right) at an art college in a West Country town more conformist than my own native suburbia was perhaps not the anarchist hub they might have tried for if their hearts were in it. (OK - I didn't enjoy my stay there.) I do remember that some student union meetings where quite vocal... but these never really resulted in any kind of decision because the various student factions were challenging Each Other more than The Authorities.... usually about agenda structure and points of order.

So it is that my ancient bones remember the political flavour of the late 1960s and early 1970s setting for "The Catalyst Killing" by Hans Olav Lahlum. (Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson. Paperback, Pan Macmillan, 2016) and another find from my local bookshop.

The story begins one evening when Inspector Kolbjorn Kristiansen is mesmerised by the expression of fear on the face of a young woman desperately running to catch his train. The doors close on her. And later her murdered body is found on the train tracks. It is Kristiansen (known as K2) who must find her killer and who soon discovers that her boyfriend, the charismatic leader of a small, radically left-wing, political group, had disappeared two years before. Political rivalry? Or was his death linked to his research into possible current links between a group of Norwegian Nazis from the war years. And was his girlfriend's death connected to his disappearance?

Set in Norway in 1970 this murder mystery conjures the era of Mao's Little Red Book and its effect upon world politics and the fashionably radical young. Starting from the base of the student political group, K2 is presented with a tight list of possible witness interviews. We follow the progress of his interviews and crime-scene visits, punctuated by his lunches and suppers with his gifted and mysteriously accurate detection-muse, the young Patricia. Meanwhile the crimes themselves escalate.

I will own up that I am not a particular fan of Agatha Christie-style whodunits. So, when I realised how much I was in classic "whodunit land" with this book - the third in Lahlum's series featuring K2 and his young helper - I didn't think I would enjoy it. But I did.
It reads smoothly and coolly in this English translation by Kari Dickson. Instead of a boring traipse through clues, I found a calm narrative pace which surprised me with a great buildup of suspense as it ran to its conclusion. And Lahlum's writing gives us individualised characters, irony, humanity... and a slightly surreal world conjured by a combination of investigation, coincidence and the truly prodigious gifts of Patricia.

If you are a little tired of the relentless grit of much Nordic Noir .... and if the notion of 1960s Nordic retro-whodunits whets your appetite ... try this series of books by Hans Olav Lahlum.


Friday, 8 July 2016

Settling The Bill At The Post Referendum Café


"Service? We'd like to settle up. What are you paying us?

(Pause)

What do you mean we have to pay you? You said there would be lots of spare money and you would feed us wonderfully after we Brexited."

(Pause)

Really? Well I don't think we'll be coming back here in a hurry, then.

(Comments Off...)

What do you mean you are the only café in town now?

Monday, 4 July 2016

Last Orders At The Post Referendum Café


"Service!"

"Hallo. Today for starters we have a choice of....
Dithers with a side order of Confusion; a warm salad of Backstabbers; or a small plate of Cold Regrets.

For Mains we have ... Roulette Aux Crabb; Brexit of Leadsom; Blanquette du Fox au Sri Lankan Hobnobbing; Gove a la Murdoch; Theresa with a side order of Relief aux Chagrin ... or
Corbyn Ostracised and Served in a Vacuum.

And if you wish to choose your dessert now, we can offer you ... Eton Mess, Westminster Mess, UK Mess or Europe Mess (the difference is in the size of the portions)... Oh ... and we do have a very small portion of Hope on a Bed of  Dual Citizenship.

May I take your order now?"

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Events In The Post Referendum Café


"Can I get you any more *pork pies, Sir and Madam?"

"No, thank you. We couldn't eat another crumb."

* Pork Pies - rhyming slang for lies. 
   Hence ... "telling porkies".


Bet you can guess how this household feels about the Referendum result. And the absence of any leadership in Parliament. And the self-destructive nature of the Opposition. And whatever is to come now.

But one thing has started already.
As we drove out of Penzance this morning we followed a car with a shattered rear window. It looked as though someone had put a brick through it, frankly. The car's license plate was Lithuanian.


Welcome to The Post Referendum Café.


Monday, 20 June 2016

Greydoll's Criminal Reading: "Wolf Winter" by Cecilia Ekbäck

I've been catching up on my foreign crime fiction; books I missed when they first came out, or simply didn't know about.
I came across this one on the shelves of my local bookshop - The Edge Of The World Bookshop - for which I should truly thank them.

"Wolf Winter" by Cecilia Ekbäck (Paperback, 2015, Hodder). 
Imagine you are a woman come to a remote new country with two daughters, a few goats, a cow - and crops to grow and harvest. Imagine mountains where you have known only marshland and lakes; new neighbours whose ways you don't know... and a husband who has to leave for a job on the coast many miles away. It is 1717 in Northern Sweden, territory newly claimed from the native, nomadic, Sami reindeer-herders. It is a bitterly harsh winter; one the local settlers call a "wolf winter".
One day your young daughters find the body of man in a forest glade. Everyone says wolves killed him. But you don't think so. You are stubborn and curious and you want to know the answer to the mystery. But it is so cold that you don't know where to begin to feed yourself and your daughters. One day the wolves start to howl and move closer. And then the dead man begins to appear to your adolescent daughter Frederika. Welcome to the story of Finnish settler Maija and her family.

Historical Nordic Noir? I have never tried that one before. I couldn't resist this blend of crime, historical fiction and the tingle of the supernatural.This is not only a gripping and beautifully written story but a first novel, a very impressive one. Swedish-born Ekbäck currently lives in Canada. But her family roots lie in the country where she sets this novel. Her writing and prose plunged me straight into the bitter cold of the "Wolf Winter" of the title; spelling out rules for survival in this harsh land in all their necessary detail. She also gives us insight into the life of a settler community in 18th century Swedish Lapland where the Church not only records and educates individuals but makes and enforces the law. Mutual distrust between the new settlers and the Sami (Lapp) reindeer-herders gives more room for suspense as the stubborn Maija sets out to find out who killed the man in the forest - and why. Against the background of poverty and hardship during a time of perpetual war, Ekbäck has created a blend of frontier-Western and Nordic-noir; a tense whodunit which combines the dangers of the spirit world with the privations and threats of frontier life. It is peopled by characters well-realised if not always likeable and I think it is an exciting, beautifully written and impressive first novel.

Ekbäck has said that she decided against creating a series based on Maija but came to wonder about the country itself through the passage of time, the Blackasen Mountains. I shall certainly be on the look-out for her second novel - In the Month of the Midnight Sun - to be published later this year and set in the same area of the far north of Sweden, this time in 1856 and during the heat and daylight of the Northern summer.



Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Avian Murder: Survivor

I told you, in the previous post, the brutal story of infanticide carried out by a house sparrow upon a great tit nestling. And that we were left not knowing if any siblings had survived.

Well. The parent birds did not leave the area. They were still feeding something, somewhere. We became convinced that at least one chick was out of the nest-hole and somewhere in the yard. We began to hear the piping sounds of a tit chick. Thought perhaps - two, but to this day still do not know for sure.
A day or so after the killing of the first great tit nestling, I was watering the garden when I became aware that I was staring at a very young tit-chick, gape-beaked, unkempt, staring back at me from the concrete surround of a drain hole near the bushy undergrowth of a partly collapsed clematis. (That kind of garden). One survivor. I kept telling it to get under cover but it didn't listen.

Next day. And a strikingly similar baby bird was some five metres away in the herbage bordering our broken down decking. (That kind of garden.) Always the great tit adults were hunting food, dropping down to feed it and keeping close watch. Later that day there was no baby on the decking but I think I heard tit-piping from the hawthorn trees above.

So. We think at least one baby bird survived and flew. Not the nest exactly... but life on the streets so to speak. I am marveling at the vigilance and tough determination of its parents who must have got the nestling out of the nesting-hole somehow and, across several days, got it to travel some seven metres or so, still feeding, defending and moving it whenever they knew it had been spotted (by us.) And let me say, that chick must have had some stubborn, brave streak too.

But what seemed very odd to me, in retrospect, was that the sparrows gave up interest once the nest was emptied. They didn't pursue the survivor (or possibly - survivors) even though they were still hiding in the same yard. The sparrows wanted them out of that nest-hole in "their" territory at all costs. Finito.

Does this story ring a bell? Seems like it's a cruel, natural urge.
Survival tale.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Avian Murder In The Courtyard

It was a mystery. And the culprit was someone whom I least expected. The victim was a great tit chick. Almost fledged but found - by me - on the yard floor below the hole in the wall that is a great tit's nest. The crown of its head was bald of feathers and skin, clearly this was not a natural death.
I removed the little corpse and buried it, feeling sad because we had been watching the progress of the great tit family as much as we could and were waiting the fledging of the chicks. I tried to work out if the culprit could have been a rat. But if so, why not carry away and eat its catch? As well, I knew the entrance hole was too small for the usual suspects... poor old magpie or various members of the crow family. Whoever it was had either been disturbed or left its victim as a cruel display.

And deep in my heart I knew the unbelievable truth. For I had seen the head of a male sparrow protruding from this nest hole shortly before I found the corpse. There are sparrows nesting, as well, in the house corners on both sides of the yard. After the death I spotted other sparrows taking great interest, one standing on the edge of the hole. I chased them off from the wall.

At least one of the parent great tits is still around. We are not sure if there are still two on duty. The Old Man reported seeing a great tit doing some kind of aggression display-dance at the sparrows in the yard but I do not know if there are surviving chicks in the nest. Whatever happened and whether any of the brood have survived, I am very sad to witness this cold-blooded murder perpetrated by a neighbour - one about whom I can never feel quite the same.