Crime Fiction Festival in N. Ireland

To Belfast Last weekend for the Noireland International Crime Fiction Festival held in The Europa Hotel and back home laden with books by writers mostly new to me.   I realize that I have been in a rut, buying or borrowing only familiar writers, but listening to the panels of speakers at the Crime LitFest and browsing through the piles of books on the stands, I uncovered a whole new world.Noireland

And what a world I found at Noireland.  Talks and panel events took place from Friday night till late Sunday afternoon and I was able to dip in and out as I wished.   I managed to catch most of them.  They ranged from An Englishwoman, An Irishwoman and a Scotswoman walk into the Noir which brought together the witty trio of Belinda Bauer, Jo Spain and Denise Mina, to a discussion between two of the top writers in the genre, Stuart MacBride and Adrian McKinty about their writing life.

Various panels of writers took to the stage to discuss themes that ranged from The Victim, which looked at the human being at the heart of the crime, through True Crime and Podcasts, Gothic Crime, The Outsider (the loner, one of the tropes of crime fiction), Chillin’ like a Villain which explored the nature of the Villain in crime, Political Villainy, right down to our very own Brexit Means …..  And if you think it was all serious, “Catch yourself on” as they say in Belfast, this was all about the craic and the jokes fell fast and furious even as the crimes discussed were bloody and brutal.

Adrian_Dunbar_-_Actor_(cropped)
Brian O’Neill (https://creativecommons.org/licenses

Difficult to chose a favourite session but I think I have to put in ace position the late evening reading by actor Adrian Dunbar of two spine-tingling chapters from John Connolly’s new novel, “A Book of Bones”.   Hard though it was to disassociate the man from his TV character of DCI Ted Hastings in Line of Fire his inspired reading meant that he owned the narrator’s character within a few seconds of him starting to read.  A cliché I know, but you could hear the proverbial pin drop.

This was a masterclass in reading aloud and holding an audience, but the man is an actor and a Northern Irish citizen so he was at home.

Another highlight for me was Anthony Horowitz talking about his writing career which spans books for young adults, the Alex Rider books, his Sherlock Holmes novels, Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders on TV, his James Bond novels and how he was chosen by the Fleming Estate to write these.  Few people know that Horowitz is a wonderful raconteur and notable wit when on stage.

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Writers like Eoin McNamee, Haylen Beck, Claire Allan, Dervla McTiernan, Stuart Turton, Gerald Brennan, Sarah Vaughn, M.J. Arlidge and Will Dean who had flown in from his home in Sweden, ranged over topics such as how they get into their victim’s heads, the human being at the heart of the crime, the extremes that motherhood can drive a woman to, and how true crimes have influenced the writing of crime novels.

Ann Cleeves in discussion
Ann Cleeves in discussion

The final session was Ann Cleeves in conversation with Brian McGilloway talking about her long career in writing and how she came to develop the characters of Jimmy Perez in Shetland, and DCI Vera Stanhope in the long-running Vera.  A fascinating insight into the workings of a true crime writer.

Part of the Bookstand

I haven’t named every writer who took part in the Festival: I have listed them below, but a special mention must go to No Alibis bookshop in Belfast without whom this would not have taken place.  The owner, David Torrans, is passionate about books, specializes in mystery and detective fiction and is involved in the community to the extent that he also uses the bookshop as a community venue for literary events and concerts, Van Morrison being just one who performed there.

Books bought from No Alibis Bookshop are free of postage in the UK so if you want to check out what’s available, log on to noalibis.com, buy a book and support an independent bookseller.  If you are in Belfast, you’ll find the shop at 83 Botanic Ave, Belfast BT7 1JL and they even open on Sunday mornings.

Eat your heart out Amazon.

Other writers appearing at the Noireland International Crime Fiction Festival and not mentioned above:

Eoin McNamee, Haylen Beck, Claire Allen, Asia MacKay, Elodie Harper, Dervla McTiernan, Stuart Turton, Laura Purcell, Caroline Lee, William Ryan, Martyn Waites, Aidan Conway, Declan Hughes, Adam Handy, Thomas Enger, Renee Knight, James Swallow, Douglas Lindsay, Mason Cross, Steve Cavanagh, Karen Hamilton, Elly Griffiths, and D.B. John.

WADI RUM – Jordan’s Natural Park

A few hours drive from Amman along the King’s Highway that cuts through the desert and you can be in the stunning nature reserve of Wadi Rum, for me the second unmissable destination in all Jordan.  Familiar to movie-goers from the David Lean film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, it was one of  the principal encampments during World War I for the attack on the Ottamans by Lawrence and the Arab Army of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite leader of the Great Arab Revolt.

Wadi Rum is a timeless place, virtually untouched by humanity and stunning in its magnificence.  The weather and the winds have carved the imposing, towering towers of rocks that surge out of the earth like skyscrapers, so elegantly described by T.E. Lawrence as “vast, echoing and God-like…”

Seven Pillars of Wisdom (2 on other side) - Copy
Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (the other 2 are on the other side)

The totally natural Wadi Rum, described by Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as “landscape that refused to be an accessory ” was a caravan route during Nabatean times, and those who trek or hike through the canyons and the red sandstone hills will come across stones and rocks inscribed with the graffiti of two thousand years ago.  I cannot vouch for the age of the graffiti below: my guide assured me that it was thousands of years old but I’m naturally sceptical when around guides so I’ll pass on that one.

Graffitti - even in the desert of Wadi Rum - Copy

Monolithic rocks surge from the desert floor to heights of 1,750 metres offering a challenge to serious mountaineers.  Less strenuous exercise like trekking or hiking in the empty spaces, offers the enjoyment of  exploring the canyons, the water holes and the 4000-year-old rock drawings in this vast wilderness.

WADI RUM

Trekkers should be well-equipped and always carry a map of the area, a compass, plenty of water, sunblock and a hat.  It is easy to get lost in this maze of mountains and desert, so it’s best to take a Bedouin guide if at all possible.

To Jordan’s credit there are no hotels in Wadi Rum, but camping is permitted.  A night spent under the star-studded sky as the sunset deepens the shadows and colours the rocks, to wake at first light to see them change again from brown to reddish-pink, is a life-affirming event you will never forget.

Although there are no cafés in the desert you may come across of the black, low-slung tents made from goat’s hair where Bedu hospitality ensures that you will be offered a refreshing cup of tea and a chance to get up close and personal with the pack animals.

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Always dress modestly when visiting a Bedu area, skimpy shorts and tops will be considered disrespectful, and remember to ask permission before taking photographs of the local Bedouin.

There is a Visitor centre where the hire of guides and 4 x 4 jeeps can be made, and where bookings to spend a night in a Bedouin tent sleeping under the stars can be arranged – something everyone should do at least once in a lifetime.

Signpost Wadi Rum

Seven Pillars of Wisdom 23

AQABA – Jordan’s Red Sea Port

Perhaps reissuing the David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia, might attract more people to Jordan as film tourism is big business these days – witness the rush to New Zealand for the Lord of the Rings films sites and Northern Ireland and Croatia for Game of Thrones sites.  And, it’s easier for us to reach Aqaba today than it was for Lawrence when he set out across the desert with the Arab Army of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite leader of the Great Arab Revolt, in 1917.

Not far from Amman and set in a palm-fringed, sandy bay backed by purple coloured mountains and just a few kilometres from the border with Saudi Arabia, Aqaba boasts several excellent seafood restaurants, coral reefs that are a mecca for international divers and deep, indigo-coloured waters that teem with colourful marine life.   Some of the world’s best snorkelling and wreck diving is available at the Royal Diving Club just outside town where day membership for about fifteen dinars gets you a private beach, fresh-water swimming pool, changing rooms and a restaurant.  If you want to see the underwater wonderland but don’t want to get wet, glass bottomed boats leave from the two public beaches in the port.

However, there is a caveat.  I understand that since my visit to Aqaba, the place has somewhat deteriorated and although nothing can take away from the glorious waters and the beautiful fish, I understand that the showers and other facilities leave a lot to be desired and the Jetty has been closed off.  There is a plus side though, fewer people now use the Diving Club and you may have the place to yourself.

At one time 50,000 cars a month passed into Iraq through this Economic Free Zone but no longer.   However, the duty-free prices in Aqaba makes it an attractive place for shopping with the accent on jewellery, hand-woven rugs and carpets, finely decorated daggers and swords and the Dead Sea health products that spill out of the numerous little shops that cluster up the hilly streets.   Lapis Lazuli and turquise are especially good buys here.

The shopkeepers are busier with their worry beads than with their calculators and there is no pressure on you to buy the goods you are admiring.   No one tries to sell you a kaftan when you stop to finger the beaded silk robes outside the shop, no one offers you an immediate discount if you will just step inside, nor are there beggars importuning for your spare coins.

Beach scene 2

Aqaba is a perfect place to stop off for a day’s relaxation by the sea if you are mentally and physically tired from walking around Petra and absorbing the history of  that lovely place, and perhaps less so, walking around Amman.  I confess I went there because of the film as Lawrence of Arabia has always been one of my favourite films and I well remember the scene where Lawrence led the charge “To Aqaba” and I had to see for myself.  Not a bit like the film, of course,   But Wadi Rum didn’t disappoint (up next).

 

 

Jordan – Amman, Capital City

In the rush to Petra, Amman is often overlooked, but this is a pity because a day or two in Jordan’s capital reveals a wealth of historical sites, most of them dotted throughout the city, part of the daily life of the inhabitants.

The city has a well preserved Roman Theatre, a colonnaded street and a Nymphaeum: the juxtaposition of the very ancient and the modern looks perfect.  No painting in garish colours is allowed in Amman so the whole is soothing to the eye.

Entrance to Roman Theatre & Museum

Amman is built on seven hills and you should take a taxi to the most ancient part of the city, Jabal al-Qal’a which translates as ‘Citadel Hill’.  The most famous ruins here are the Roman Temple of Hercules, the Byzantine Church and the Umayyad Palace.  The gigantic sandstone blocks of this Roman Temple, part of a vast complex erected in 1200 BC by the Ammonites who gave Amman its name, are being put back together by a team of international archaeologists.  An extra bonus are the magnificent views across downtown Amman from the hill which is one of the highest points in the city.

Citadel Hill 4
The Temple of Hercules

In the nearby Archeological Museum, you’ll find the 3rd century Dead Sea Scrolls, rectangles of kidskin sewn end to end only discovered in 1947 by some Bedouin shepherds.

Looking down from Citadel Hill
Downtown Amman from Citadel Hill

From a 3000 year old culture to modern nightlife, there’s something for everyone in Amman.  You’ll find that the vendors are busier with their worry beads than with their calculators, and whether you shop in ancient souks or state of the art shopping malls, you will find no pressure on you to buy anything – a delightful change from Cairo.

Brass and Copper shop

What you will find is a pocket of traditional Arab hospitality and a people who want to extend the hand of friendship, for Jordan is a peace-loving nation and welcomes all visitors.   Amman seems to be more of a collection of adjoining villages rather than one entity with downtown having a constant rumble of traffic, markets, and bustling people. Its highlight is the Roman Theatre where the seats are chiselled out of the mountain.

Amman from Citadel Hill
Roman Theatre viewed from Citadel Hill

And as for food, I can only say “Go try for yourself”.  I never had a bad meal in two weeks in Jordan and I tried many different restaurants.

Petra, the Rose Red City of Jordan

Looking through my images of Jordan I am struck by how much it offers the visitor in terms of not only historical sites, but scenery and serenity.  Serenity may seem a strange word to use about any Middle Eastern country these days, but Jordan has always seemed to me to be like a peaceful house surrounded by warring neighbours.

The pink-hued cliffs of Petra will always be the absolute highlight of Jordan, but close behind comes the capital itself, Amman.  Then a trip to Wadi Rum where maybe you can find time to stay overnight and sleep under the desert stars, an unforgettable experience, and a side trip to Aqaba, the Red Sea port.

Royal Jordanian Police Guard
Royal Jordanian Guard at The Treasury

You approach Petra through the Siq, or chasm, a winding defile hemmed in with towering red rocks that soar nearly 100 metres into the sky before it opens dramatically on to a square dominated by the pink sandstone of the façade, (used in the final scenes of the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusades).  To emerge into the light at the end of the long walk and be faced with the glory of the Treasury is something that is hard to describe.

Approaching the City the Siq
Entry to the Treasury from the Siq

This 6th century BC world of temples, Roman theatres, monasteries and chambers carved into the red sandstone is Jordan’s best-known tourist attraction and a Unesco World Heritage Site.  Here the original inhabitants, the Nabateans, set up their city-state, defending their home with ease until 106 AD when it fell to the Romans.  After the Romans came the Byzantines, then the Crusaders, until by the 16th century Petra was all but lost to the west.   A Swiss Explorer, Louis Burckhard, penetrated the hidden city in 1812 and the world became aware of the wondrous city that had once been the centre of a trading empire that stretched from Saudi Arabia to Damascus.

The Treasury was built to impress and 2,000 years on it is still impressive.  Protected from wind and rain, the detailing on the well preserved façade is still sharp and crisp.  It is estimated that 3,000 visitors per day visit Petra during the peak season and visitors are advised to visit between 9.00–11.00 a.m. and 4.00 – 5.00 pm when there are fewer tourists and the walls of the Treasury are suffused with a reddish-pink glow.  Although 3,000  may sound a lot of people, if you cannot visit between these hours Petra is large enough to hold that amount in reasonable comfort.   However, if you are not on a tour, it will repay you to make a really early start in order to savour the utter peace and stillness of the area before the hordes descend from the cruise ships – 7.00 a.m. is perfect.

Boy on Donkey at Petra

A whole day can be spent here, more than one if time allows because there is a lot to explore, the royal tombs, the 1st century AD Theatre, and the High Sacrificial Place which is reached by climbing 700 well-cut steps past extraordinary rock colourings.  Your reward is breathtaking views over Petra from a peak 170m above Wadi Musa.  No one knows for certain what took place here, whether the sacrifices were of animal or human, but evidence of some human sacrifices in surrounding towns/cities has been found.

It will be very hot, there is no shade, so carry plenty of water.  For part of the way there is an option of taking a donkey ride or a carriage ride: the authorities discourage these because of the damage they do to the floor of Petra but they are available for those who need them.

Tijuana – in the shade of the USA

It seems we can’t escape newspaper articles, radio reports and TV programmes about the border between the USA and Mexico, and all this has led me to think of my travels along that border some years ago.  I wrote an article at the time for The Traveller magazine and I thought it might be interesting to use it as a Post on my Blog as when I was there the border seemed to benefit the American tourists almost as much as the Mexicans

So, here it is.

Tijuana Border (2)

You’ll see them every evening, peering through the holes in the fence at the patrolling agents on the US side, or astride the wall, silently waiting for sundown and their chance to make that final spurt for freedom.  These are the ‘chickens’ – illegal immigrants who nightly swarm across the high steel fence that snakes inland from Tijuana to San Diego.  Like the old Berlin Wall, this one also has arc lights and guards equipped with night-vision cameras.

San Diego County, USA, borders Mexico for approximately 70 miles but the wall itself runs for only 14 of them.  Further north, the immigrants risk a gruelling three or four day journey across tough, arid terrain, but from Tijuana to the suburbs of San Diego it is only a short run.  Joselito spoke for them all.  “If we don’t make it tonight, there is a chance of finding some sort of job while we wait for another day.  So we stay”.

Tijana Border

Tijuana is a tough place to live: it is noisy and dirty, the crime rate is high and drugs are easily available, but for the scores of people who arrive daily from all over Mexico, this frontier town is the gateway to new beginnings and new hopes,  Many who come here to try their luck at crossing the border end up finding ways to support themselves and their families in Tijuana itself.

You will see them on the side-streets of the city: the brick-makers who squat by the streams, the farriers who tool and fashion the graceful Mexican saddles and boots, the touts who stand by the sidewalk, a damaged car door in one hand and a panel-beater in the other.  Their customers are Americans who drive their cars across the border for high calibre work at one-tenth of what it would cost in California.

That’s not the only thing that attracts Americans to Tijuana.  Drugs and dental treatments that are expensive in the United States are cheap and readily available in this border city.  It is almost certain that the American matrons you see clutching  pharmacy bags have just picked up a six-month supply of Prozac at giveaway prices, a supply of chemotherapy treatment or a mixed bag of sleeping pills and wake-up pills.

Rich and poor live in close proximity here.  There are modest houses of concrete and metal alongside magnificent colonial-style mansions, interspersed with crazily leaning shacks.  Plastic containers, splashed recklessly with scarlet and yellow paint and filled with scented red and pink geraniums, define the ‘garden’ space in front of these dwellings.  Here and there on end walls are brilliant murals of darkly exotic flowers and oceans and skies of an impossible blue, a naive art that owes more to the capacity for gaiety and colour in the Mexican temperament than to any innate artistic talents.  Even here, strolling groups of traditionally dressed Mariachi bands want to serenade you and if you have suffered six versions of  Quantanamera in 30 minutes it may be prudent to know the title of one or two other Mexican songs.

mariachi-2770114_640

Twenty years ago, Tijuana was little more than a clutch of ragged adobe houses and a few stores, a border town of such searing poverty and dirt that I was glad to leave it.  Today it is a city in its own right, a city that has a future – of sorts.  Above all, it has a young and vibrant population, one of the reasons why Samsung, Sanyo, General Electric, Ford and other multinationals have invested billions of dollars in the city and why they currently employ more than 100,000 workers here.  The fact that there is work for thousands where before there was nothing will not halt the border crossings, but it makes the plight of the ‘chickens’ less hopeless and enables some of them to remain in their own country.

Meanwhile, the steel border, illuminated at night, adds a frisson of excitement, a charge, to life in Tijuana.  And those gaunt figures that sit astride it today will be followed, inevitably, by others tomorrow.