Monday, January 25, 2010

A multiple natural disaster

I reported recently that Mongolia was currently suffering from a winter which, even by local standards, is proving disastrously severe.  This report from Mongolia-Web indicates that the situation remains critical, particularly for those in the most remote regions. 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Alibi and Murdoch Mysteries

Many of you will no doubt be familiar with the television channel Alibi which, uniquely, devotes itself entirely to crime drama. I've been impressed by the channel, not only because it provides an outlet for some excellent classic and contemporary crime series, but also because its marketing has made a genuine effort to engage with the crime fiction community (for example, in its involvement in the Crimefest convention last year).

The channel is currently promoting a new series of its exclusive show, Murdoch Mysteries, set in Victorian-era Toronto. Rather smartly, they've decided to support the promotion by involving members of the crime-fiction blogging world. As a result, I found myself approached to help publicise a competition linked to the series. Anything that helps raise the profile of crime-writing is fine by me, so I'm delighted to assist (and not only because in return they've promised me a Murdoch Mysteries cafetiere, which sounds like something any coffee-addicted crime writer should have).

On that note, let me have over the lectern to those good people at Alibi.

To celebrate the launch of Murdoch Mysteries Season Three on Tuesday 16 February, Alibi is giving you and a friend the chance to win tickets to a special preview screening in London. Hosted by Thomas Craig and Lisa Faulkner and with champagne on arrival you can be sure it’s one mystery that you won’t want to miss out on!

Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) is back on our screens with a thrilling third series of Murdoch Mysteries. Set in Victorian Toronto, the series begins with William running for his life through the streets of Bristol, England where he meets a beautiful bar maid Anna Fulford (Lisa Faulkner).

Your prize includes a pair of tickets for you and a friend to a special preview screening of Murdoch Mysteries on Monday 15 February at the Soho Hotel, London. The lucky winners will arrive at 7pm, and will be offered champagne or a soft drink on arrival. Thomas Craig and Lisa Faulkner will also be there to introduce the episode and afterwards you will get the chance to ask questions to the both of them!

For your chance to win tickets, simply unlock this page by cracking the code

Can you figure out the question hidden in this code?






P Y I G W O D E 1 ?

Is the answer to the question...?

a. Wife

b. Memory

c. Notebook

For a clue to crack the code, click here

Entrants must be over 18, see the competition entry page for full terms and conditions. The competition closes on Tuesday 9th February at 23:59 and the winners will be notified within 24 hours.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blue Monday

According to one of those fatuous pieces of non-research that marketing companies generate every now and then, last Monday was supposedly 'blue Monday' - the midwinter point when our collective spirits are at their lowest.   I don't know about that (though spending a fair portion of the day sitting on a Virgin Train travelling to and from London didn't particularly enhance my own joie de vivre), but Monday did see two sad departures from the artistic firmament. 

The first was the crime writer, Robert B Parker, best known as the author of the long-running series about Spenser, the poetically-named Boston private eye.  I first came across one of Parker's books in some long-gone bookshop on Stoke Newington High Street in London in the early 1980s, and I immediately became a huge fan.  It's easy to underestimate the quality of the books because they slip down so easily, and part of Parker's skill was to make it look so effortness (although, since Parker claimed to produce only a first draft, maybe it really was).  But his best books are utterly gripping, slickly plotted and full of characters that linger in the memory.  They're fantasies, of course, and perhaps lack the real grittiness that characterises much noir fiction today, but as intelligent escapist entertainment, they're hard to beat. 

The second loss was Kate McGarrigle.  She's now perhaps best known to a younger generation as the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, but she was of course, in partnership with her sister Anna, a fine singer and songwriter in her own right.   The first McGarrigles album contains as good a collection of songs as you'll find, and the sisters continued to produce splendid material, albeit rather sporadically, over the subsequent decades.   I'm particularly fond of the two family CDs they produced, The McGarrigle Hour and The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, which gathered together the disparate talents of the McGarrigle/Wainwright clan to perform a selection of traditionally-based songs, and in the process created something quite magical. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Mongolian winter

A few days of snow recently brought the UK to a predictable halt, and in this neck of the woods we had temperatures of -17 degrees C, which seemed more than cold enough for me.  Spare several thoughts, then, for Mongolia which is currently experiencing a particularly ferocious winter, even by its own extreme standards.  The UB Post reports that:

"The average temperature in northern Mongolia has dropped to -35 degrees Celsius, with temperatures in the rest of country ranging between-17 to -22 degrees Celsius. So far, the coldest temperature of -47 degrees was recorded in Uvs Province. ... According to estimates by the Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), a total of 786,639 heads of livestock have perished. ...The total loss of livestock is approximately 17 per cent of the estimated 43.6 million heads of livestock in the country. Some five people died during a recent snowstorm."

Pretty dreadful.  The Mongolian Government has initiated a large-scale relief campaign, estimating that around 120000 are affected by the conditions.  By contrast, our few blocked roads seem very small beer. 

Friday, January 15, 2010

Clean and bloodless

So far, most of my Mongolian murderers have managed to evade criminal justice, one way or another.  However, I'm delighted to see that President Tsakhia Elbegdorj has announced a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in Mongolia

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An accredited premier tasting event

Technology is a wonderful thing.  It means, for example, that I can update this blog from pretty much wherever I am.  Unfortunately, it also means that where I currently am is sitting on a stationary train somewhere outside London because of a snow-inspired power failure. 

Still, that's given me the opportunity to scan the news from Mongolia so that you don't have to.  I'm not sure that I've ever fully understood the concept of 'brand' (and, no, I wouldn't like you to explain, thanks all the same).  But I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that two Mongolian beer brands, Fusion and Borgio, have taken the gold and silver awards at the 2009-2010 World's Largest Beverage Competition.  I presume that means it's the world's largest competition in this particular field, rather than a cometition for the world's largest beverage, attractive as that idea might sound as I sit here on a motionless train.  The two Mongolian beers were apparently beaten only by the splendidly named US wheat beer, Son of  a Peach.  I note also that China took the gold award for water (yes, I know) for a product called L'Ice, which possibly sounds better in Chinese.  At a more chauvinistic level, I was delighted to see that England  took the platinum award for tea (what else?) with Stress Test Earl Grey Blend,. narrowly beating China's Organic Panda Orange.  No, I still don't understand the concept of 'brand', I'm afraid. 

Mind you, the highlighted comments of the award judges are a source of delight.   They range from the hyperbolic - 'madness is an understatement to this flavor explosion!' - to the possibly backhanded 'a very pleasant surprise awaits you with this vintage', with a particular fondness for puns that don't quite work. For instance, Greenall's Bloom gin is described as offering: 'A BLOOM of flavor; certain to catch the eye of Gin lovers everywhere!'.  Come again?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Seventies in the shade

I am, in the literal sense, a child of the 1960s.  But the 1970s was really the formative decade for me.  Even now, much of my taste - in books, films, music - seems to have its roots in that decade. 

I was intrigued, therefore, by Francis Wheen's new book, Strange Days Indeed, an account of the 1970s subtitled 'The Golden Age of Paranoia'.  As Wheen indicates, the book is in part a prequel to his last, highly entertaining work, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, which began with the oddities of the Reaganite 1980s.  He quotes John Fowles in turn referencing Gramsci's Prison Notebooks: '...the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.'  Wheen's book details just some of the 'morbid symptoms' that characterised the decade that sat uncomfortably between the optimistic idealism of the 1960s and the increasingly unfettered capitalism of the 1970s. 

Like its predecessor, Strange Days Indeed feels more like a collection of essays than a sustained history, and at times this left me feeling slightly frustrated.  There were points where I would have preferred a clearer exploration of cause and effect or a more thorough exposition of the linkages between the various phenomena that Wheen describes.  But the descriptions themselves are fascinating.  We get chapters on Nixon and Watergate, the Heath and Wilson governments, international terrorism and the 'underground' movement, the Oz obscenity trial, developments in Russia and China, Idi Amin, the CIA, Uri Geller and Erich von Daniken, and plenty more.  One senses that Wheen wasn't exactly short of material. 

Wheen describes the 1970s as 'that most distant of times, the day before yesterday'.  It may be that any decade, subject to this kind of scrutiny, would reveal its share of peculiarities.  But there does seem to be a sense that, for a few years, the world lost its collective senses (alongside Sir William Armstrong, head of the civil service during the Heath government, who at the height of the Heath's conflict with the National Union of Mineworkers had to be led away babbling about Armageddon).  Many of the stories - Nixon effectively bugging himself, the faked suicide of the MP John Stonehouse, Harold Wilson having to break into his own aide's property to recover papers withheld in a fit of pique - seem scarcely credible to a contemporary reader. 

And yet, as Wheen concludes in the final chapter, there are odd parallels with our own time - global economic crisis, the US engaged in a prolonged and increasingly intractable war, the resurgence of fanatical terrorism, the prevalence of conspiracy theory and political paranoia.  It may be that our current fascination with the decade - from Mamma Mia to Red Riding, from Frost/Nixon to Life on Mars - reflects a growing sense that they are perhaps tapping into a contemporary zeitgeist.  If so, we should perhaps treat Wheen's enjoyable book as something of a warning. 


Saturday, January 2, 2010

All aboard the Sun Train

A slightly belated but heart-felt happy new year.  Here are some splendid images of Mongolians preparing to celebrate the first sunrise of the year.