In or out?

Two ‘firsts’  this weekend. Poisoned Pen’s Webcon was allegedly the world’s first Online Mystery Convention  – and what a brilliant idea. The archive of events is on their website so for those of us who weren’t able to spent all of Saturday glued to the computer, there’s a chance to catch up on the ‘live’ panels and interviews and a lot of the pre-recorded material.

Given the cost of attending real conferences, maybe we’ll be seeing more of the virtual sort in future? No travelling, or worrying about what to wear or who’s going to feed the cat. Obviously there were glitches – BlogTalkRadio isn’t always as clear as it might be and some of the participants had pitched battles with their computers – but there was some excellent material available. For twenty-five dollars (including a virtual goody-bag) it was a great day out/in.

The other ‘first’  for me (which clashed with the Webcon, as things do) was a trip to hear some professional actors read three short dramas by upcoming writers, one of whom is a good friend. I’d never realised before how trained performers can bring well-written words to life  – even when clutching copies of the script. It was simply wonderful. So I guess I won’t be retreating to live on the Internet just yet.

Anyone for coffee?

Finally got organised to register for Poisoned Pen’s Webcon. I’ll be donning my pinny to host the chat in the Virtual Coffee Shop at 4.30-5 pm UK time tomorrow (Saturday 24th). If anyone’s around and would care to drop by, you’ll be most welcome.

I’ll be taking over from the excellent Jane Finnis, who’s making the coffee for the previous half-hour, so hopefully there will be some crossover*.  If it’s quiet we can have a chat over the washing-up about some gloriously obscure aspect of Roman Britain and the  fiction we both weave around it .

As regards the technical aspects  – ‘fraid I haven’t a clue how this sort of thing works, nor what time 4.30 will be across the rest of the virtual community, but people who DO know have made it all clear on the Webcon site.

*LATER – no there won’t, not unless something goes seriously wrong, as the final schedule says there should be a half-hour gap between us.  I’ll be sharing the hosting with Jenny White – hopefully that’s the right link!

Persona Non Grata audio

At last! Thanks to Randy for the good news that Ruso and Tilla’s third adventure  is now available for US listeners to download from

The publishers Tantor also have it on CD. I’d like to think it’s also in All Good Bookshops, but possibly it’s only in selected Very Excellent ones.

(Apologies to anyone who can’t access items from American websites, to whom this is no use at all.  ‘Ruso and the Root of All Evils’ will be out in the UK next spring and, partly due to snail’s pace at which I seem to be writing Book Four, publication dates WILL be better synchronised in future.)

Stonehenge – loved not wisely, but too well

I’m one of the generation whose family archive holds – somewhere – a childhood photo that you wouldn’t be allowed to take today. It’s of me sitting on one of the fallen stones of the Henge. I seem to recall there was an ice-cream involved somewhere. There may even have been a picnic, probably involving fish-paste sandwiches, orange squash and a thermos.

Years later we took our own children there. No such photo opportunities now. Visitors are shepherded round a circular path at a safe distance from the stones, allowed to Look But Don’t Touch, before trotting back through the tunnel to hand in their audio guides. It’s all very necessary, given the numbers of folk involved, but it’s kind of sad. It’s hard to get a perspective on our ancestors’ incredible achievement when you can’t stand underneath it, run your hands over the surface of the stone and think, how did they get that up there? swiftly followed by, If that falls on me, I’m dead.

The ‘visitor experience’ at Stonehenge has been under discussion for years. Everyone agrees that it’s unsatisfactory: nobody can agree on what should be done about it. However… it looks as though something may be happening at last. For some pretty pictures of how things might turn out, have a look at the English Heritage proposals.

Still not much chance of being able to sit on the stones with an ice-cream, though. Like the taste for fish-paste sandwiches, some things just aren’t going to come back.

Japan: ‘I’ll send you a map.’

Or, What We Did on Our Holidays part III – The Final Destination.

I must admit that when the kind friend who was meeting us in Tokyo sent two maps, a series of written instructions and an emergency phone number, we thought she’d gone slightly over the top. Japanese railway notices are in English, and the staff are famously helpful. In fact this summer they were told that if they didn’t smile enough at the customers, they would be sent on  special training courses.

So, how hard could it be?

Very, as it turned out. Shinjuku station is the busiest in the world. It’s a miracle of efficiency that boasts miles of corridors, millions of travellers,  dozens of escalators and two hundred exits. (I’m quoting Wikipedia for the exits figure. We didn’t visit them all, although I did begin to wonder if we might.)

Having rescued us from Shinjuku, Kind Friend took us to see Tokyo the easy way.  This is NOT the famous view from the bar of the hotel where ‘Lost in Translation’ was filmed, and where beer is allegedly £30 a pint. This is taken from the top of the Metropolitan building, which is apparently just as good – and free. We were told Mount Fuji was out there somewhere. Please use your imagination.

View to horizon across Tokyo rooftops

After the urban madness of Tokyo it was a relief to go somewhere with only two possible directions, UP and DOWN:

Ruth and Kind Friend on the skilift

Here’s the view the skiers would have seen from the start of the downhill  run in the 1998 Winter Olympics. Presumably with more snow.

view of mountains

Below: in Kind Friend’s flat, clutching a traditional soft drink whose name I’ve forgotten and relishing the thought of not having to navigate anywhere at all. Note the absence of chairs, which is an interesting challenge for the British back.

Ruth crosslegged on a cushion

You can’t go to Japan and not try Sushi…

Pile of used Sushi plates

…and Japanese fast food, which is a work of art. Here’s a display of ‘Bento boxes’,  supplied with disposable chopsticks.

Selection of lunch boxes, all beautifully arranged

Whilst it might not be as comforting as a bag of chips, I have to say the Bento Box wins hands down for presentation. And possibly goes some way towards explaining another cultural difference. After a fortnight surrounded by slim Russians and slender Japanese and Koreans, I began to realise that all those things they say about the British being overweight are truer than some of us would like to think.

To be honest some of us (well OK, me) aren’t very fit, either. So no wonder the smiles gave way to expressions of regret when the nice men in the ticket office told us the last train to the airport was leaving in three minutes’ time from a platform somewhere else in the middle of  the dreaded Shinjuku station.

Luckily our very few words of Japanese included ‘Excuse me!’ and ‘Thank you!’   – much needed as we rampaged through corridors, up and down escalators and along platforms in pursuit of Eldest Son who had finally, just in time, figured out how to navigate in Japan.

South Korea: ingenious, or what?

Still on the ‘what we did on our holidays’  theme, this post has been brought forward a few days (there really is a plan here – sometimes) because…

There’s a chance to catch a little of Korea in the UK this week. The amazing percussion group GongMyoung are touring southeast England. Fantastic to watch live, they’re also on YouTube here.

The instruments  in the clip are their own invention. After our swift visit to Seoul this comes as no surprise.  South Korea truly appears to be the land where there’s an ingenious gadget for everything.

August is not the best time to visit Seoul, as any fool who’s read the guide books will know.  Still, having travelled so far, this fool felt obliged to turn off the aircon (remotely controlled, of course), abandon the amazing guesthouse plumbing (more later)  and drag herself out to see a few sights.   After this:

Bright banners being carried at traditional changing of palace guard

and some of this

Traditional rooftop against background of mountains

and some sitting around in this

Korean guesthouse garden

and some marvelling at the absence of  litter and graffiti while wondering where the riots were (sorry, no photo of riot police out practising on the streets, but there were lots of them)  the only sight we still wanted to see was this, dispensed by machines that sell it very cold and very cheap:

Can of Pocari Sweat soft drink

…which just about gave us the strength to stagger back to the wonders of Korean plumbing. I’m not going to elaborate except to say that the heated bathroom mirror is an eminently sensible invention. As for the rest –  Googling ‘washlet’ will provide all the details anyone could ever want to know, and visitors to Japan will not need to be told.

I began to understand what it must have felt like when our barbarian ancestors first encountered aqueducts and underfloor heating. We’d have been the ones running back to the farmstead, shouting, ”You’ll never believe what those Romans have got in that Bath House!’

If you don’t know the language…

Still mulling over the holiday (will get back to Ruso 4 in a minute).  One thing I think I learned was how clueless you are in a society where you don’t have the language. Things happen that you have no way of interpreting or understanding, and other things, possibly of enormous significance, probably pass straight over your head unnoticed.

All of which leads me to wonder how much the Romans really understood about the Britons and their customs when they came over here, even with the help of interpreters.  It’s such a pity that we don’t have any account of how the Druids saw themselves before the Roman Army – allegedly – wiped them out.