Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Every traveler knows that when you're away from home even your own language can be foreign, but when the sign says what it means, does it mean what it says?

Take Poland, for example; the road signs there are very straightforward. All you do is: Right turn towards immediate outside. 

Easy. A friend of mine also has a photograph of this gem: GO SOOTHINGLY IN THE SNOW AS THERE LURK THE SKI DEMONS. He said that after that, things went from bad to warsaw.

In the Slavija Hotel in Belgrade I once found the following sign on the door of the elevator:

1. To move the cabin, push button of wishing floor
2. If the cabin should enter more persons, each one should press the number of the wishing floor
3. Button retaining a pressed position shows received command for visiting starter.
photograph: Joe Mabel

On the door of my room was this equally impressive sign:

Let us know about any unficiency as well as leaking on the service. Our utmost will improve it.

The Slavs showed a more hospitable attitude than the Romanians. The sign on the lift in my hotel there was pretty blunt:

The lift is being fixed for the next days. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.

Just ask my wife. They are not quite as ruthless in Prague. They have their own state tourist agency, Cedok. Their front window once proudly displayed this sign:

Take one of our horse-driven city tours - we can guarantee no miscarriages.

Perfect. So we went full term right across the city. Could be the birth of a whole new tourist industry. But Eastern Europe is a tricky place for vacations. Even if you avoid ski demons and try not to be unbearable, a nasty shock awaits you on the Soviet cruise liners that ply the Black Sea. This sign was seen on one of the cabin doors:

Helpsavering apperata in emergings behold many whistles! Associate the stringing apparata about the bosoms and meet behind, flee then to the indifferent lifesaveringshippen obediencing the instructs of the vessel!
a Russian cruise ship

But let's stop picking on Eastern Europe. There's this famous sign once seen on the front door of a cathedral in Sevilla in Spain, urging restraint:

It is forbidden to enter a woman, even a foreigner if dressed as a man.

That just about rules out most fetishes in the dictionary. Public morals are also of great concern in Cairo. This sign was found over the entrance to a nightclub:

Unaccompanied ladies not admitted unless with husband or similar.

What is similar to a husband? No ladies, don't answer that. We're better not knowing.

Foreign restaurants are the best source for this sort of unintentional humour. I saw a sign in a New Delhi establishment that seemed a little blunt to me:

Please do not commit nuisance on floor!
Go outside and commit!

In Nepal I was tempted with Patched Eggs, Welsh Rabid and even Hambugger. And how about this appetising menu I found in Moraira in Spain:

Crumbled Eggs with Tomato

Goose Barnacles
Natural Fish Knife (piece)
Gordon Blu
Thigh Lambskin

Pineapple Worst
Special Ice from the House
Frost Pie
photograph: yohan euan

Europeans, at least, have an excuse. It's not their language. What could you say about the KFC outlet in the UK who once advertised: OPEN SEVEN DAYS A WEEK EXCLUDING SUNDAYS

Even that faded in comparison to this tourist booklet's description of the Queen Elizabeth the First hunting lodge in Epping Forest: ' ... while in later years, too worn to ride, the Queen and her favourites waited for dear after dear to come within range of their crossbars.'

It's easy to laugh. But what would a Japanese - or even a Romanian - make of these directions found in the mens washroom of a Sydney hotel: 'Shake excess water from hands, push button to start, rub hands rapidly under air outlet and wipe them on front of shirt.'

It's best to ignore the signs and just look for local knowledge, just as I did when I was lost in Innsbruck. I knew the man in the tourist agency could help me because the sign in the window said: INGLISH SPOCKEN HERE.

Do you have a funny foreign sign you'd like to share? If you do, you could also win a free eBook of OPIUM. I spent a week in the jungle in the Golden Triangle and chased aging Corsican gangsters around Vientiane while researching it.

It's the first in a five book series about the growth of the drug trade in South East Asia, from opium sacks thrown in the back of Cessnas to hundreds of kilos of refined heroin hidden in trawlers and military cargo planes.

See you at the end of the week for Friday night drinks!

                                          amazon kindle edition

Monday, November 28, 2011


I recently watched screenwriter John Orloff's Anonymous, which has dragged out the tired old debate about whether William Shakespeare was really William Shakespeare.

He was or not he was. That is the question.

In this piece of ludicrous fluff, Edward de Vere writes A Midsummer's Night's Dream as a nine year old - as you do - and goes on to pen all Shakespeare's masterworks in between fomenting rebellions, and when he dies he leaves enough masterworks under the sofa cushions to fuel another decade of Shakespeare's canon.

Now I've nothing against historical fiction. I write it and I love reading it. But my question to you is this: how much should we mess with our history in order to create a story about it?

Two of my favourite historical movies are Gladiator and The Last Samurai, and I admit they play a little fast and loose with the truth at times. But we have to give writers latitude, don't we?

I once took Braveheart to task in a post over its historical inaccuracies and the wonderful Michelle Miller ( reminded me that she thoroughly enjoyed that movie and it didn't matter about certain inaccuracies if people were moved enough by the feature to check on the real history afterwards. (As opposed to what happens in history lessons at school when we're moved to take a completely different subject instead.)

And she was right. But I think that if you propose a new historical theory then you should get your facts straight and this one is a mess. 

all the William Shakespeares via Smatprt

What I find offensive about this movie is that it champions the idea that brilliance is only born of superior education, breeding and experience. It's a perfectly English way of looking at things. I was born in London, I still go there a lot, and it still strikes me that the caste system is as much alive in Albion as it is in India.

The movie coat-tails the 'Oxford theory' that de Vere was the author of Shakespeare's plays. The idea has been doing the rounds since 1920, when an English scholar, the poignantly named Thomas Looney, first brought it before the world. It's such a stupid idea it's not worth refuting here.

But what really troubles me is that these Looney theories smudge what we might learn about writing and the creative imagination from the son of a Brummie glover; first, the power of research. Critics say that a commoner like Shakespeare could not have known so much about the royal court. They seem to forget his patron, friend and - some suggest - his lover, was the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, one of the highest courtiers in the land.

How could a country boy have known so much - or so little - about foreign travel, for example? When Valentine, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, sailed from Milan to Verona, I cringed in embarrassment for his ignorance of geography. And yet I later discovered that in those days people really did travel around Italy by an extensive system of canals. In fact, Henry Wriothesley was so taken with them that he dug his own canal at Titchfield.

So he was an excellent researcher. Second, Shakespeare loved words. He loved them so much he invented more.. Here are some of them: birthplace, bloodstained, disheartened, lonely, lustrous, moonbeam, remorseless, tranquil, and undress. We still use these and many others every day.

And there's this; there is a word in Warwickshire parlance for the shadow formed by the small pile of earth created when a plough turns at the end of its run through a field. Shakespeare knew it and used it. Great writers seem to draw on their own unique past to enrich their writing.

But I think what we can learn best from Shakespeare, the commoner, the chav, is knowing our audience. In the Elizabethan theatre of the time he had to entertain everyone from the aristocrats in the two shilling cushion seats to the one penny groundlings. And he could do it because he was friends with dandies like Wriothesley while drinking with the boys in the inns of Bishopsgate and Southwark.

Yes, he understood the manners of the royal court, and yes he could write in iambic pentameter; but in every play he also included obscene skits to entertain the tarts and the apprentices in the pit, which is why just recently a Coventry teacher dragged his charges out of a performance of Midsummer's Night Dream, covering their eyes and expressing a somewhat naive horror that the Bard was a bawd.

I don't know about you but I don't care much for privileged genius. I'll never be that. I'll never be Shakespeare either. I just like that he was a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who made good because, among many other things,  he understood his audience so well. Just give me a tiny bit of that.  

So much for 'Anonymous.' I don't think that as a piece of writing it will ever challenge King Lear. But then I suspect that John Orloff didn't really write the screenplay, as it says on the credits. I think there's a conspiracy. I think it was actually Prince Phillip. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Last night I watched a wonderful German movie called The Lives of Others.

It won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film; it is about a Stasi operative who is assigned to spy on a playwright during the Cold War. It vividly portrays the paranoia the artistic community provoked in the repressive East German regime. 

They monitored everyone - but it was their own writers and artists they feared and hated the most.

Why is this?

There is a good reason that writers are persecuted in places like Burma and China and Vietnam; the very same reason that the Nazis made bonfires out of books. 

As we saw when we discussed the Stanley Milgram experiments even one single voice of dissent can matter a very great deal. It can stop people just going along with something that is wrong.

This is why repressive governments lock up writers; that's why the mullahs put a fetwa on Salman Rushdie.

But how does this affect me? you are wondering. I don't hold extremist views. I just like to write paranormal romance. Or: I just like to read steampunk novels.

But remember Rushdie never meant to start a war with Islam; he was just expressing his own singular point of view about Mohammed. Some of Shakespeare's contemporaries ended up on the rack for writing plays that offended Elizabeth; he nearly did himself. Allen Ginsberg never intended to offend public morals. He was just trying to express himself.

Salman Rushdie
Photograph: David Shankbone

The East German Stasi were not afraid of one artist; they were afraid of all of them. If you are reading this, then I assume that you write or you read a lot and if you lived in East Germany in the seventies and eighties they would have been afraid of you.

 I am not persuaded that positive change in the world is inspired by religious creed or by political parties. The movements that have made us think differently - the Renaissance, the anti-war movement in the US during the seventies, the feminist movement - were successfully championed by artists and writers, playwrights and songwriters. 

The artistic form imposes itself on the subconscious; we can't get a tune out of our heads; we feel a lump in our throat looking at a painting; we remember a hero from a book and call our dog after them. (My pet parrot was called Hemingway and my first dog was called Scout!)

This is why books are important.

 Today is the Thanksgiving holiday in America. Although I don't live there, it has made me reflect on what I have to feel grateful for. One thing is that in our freer world writers are free to express themselves and not worry that the Stasi is listening in.

 It is a precious right, and one that should never be taken for granted, because even in free societies not all 'freedom lovers' are actually happy content with the arrangement.

Because otherwise we could share the fate of Rafiq Tagi, who received multiple stab wounds in a attack carried out by two unidentified assailants as he was returning home from work in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. It was believed to be in relation to an article that he had published.

Spare another thought for Mikhail Nabil Sanad, who was arrested on March 28, 2011 in Egypt and handed a three-year sentence for comments made on his blog, in which he accused the new government of anti-democratic practices and of continuing the corruption of former president Hosni Mubarak. 

                     (To know more see here: THE PEN SOCIETY )

Where I live we're free to say what we like about our elected leaders. But we should do well to remember;  if anything changes we're the ones in the front line.

So even without a Thanksgiving turkey I will tonight raise a glass to my elected leader - even though I didn't vote for her. 

At least I know she's not listening in and I won't be arrested for saying that I think she's hopeless ...

Do you ever feel that you've been persecuted (that includes family and friends!) for things you have written? Have you ever been asked NOT to publish something for any reason? Have you ever been sued? Are you PROUD to be a writer?  I'd love to hear about it! Please leave a comment. We'll talk about what you all say next week.

Avagoodweekend Mister Walker!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Last week got a little intense, with Yale professors and Sufi mystics, so I thought I'd start this week on a lighter note with some Australian humour.

This was the classic Australian Toyota ad from 2006. It's absolutely typical of Australian sheep farmer - and if you're reading this, Andy d'Espeissis, this one's for you. I hope you enjoy it as much as Australia and NZ did.

It was so good, they did another by public demand.

My dear old Dad loved that first one. He was in the Guards regiment during WWII. He was a tank mechanic but couldn't drive to save his life - something that never changed till the day he died. They let him drive a Centurion tank just once - he stuck it in reverse instead of forward and demolished a two storey house in Brussels.

It was his Bugger moment. What was yours? If you have one to share you can win a free copy of Opium. Just remember to tell me what kind of e-reader you have.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Still got some comments on the post about THE SITUATION, and how VS Naipaul's Booker winning manuscript was rejected by over twenty London literary agents when it was recently submitted under a different name. 

Karen says that as a reader she is disappointed with book publishers, and that content often doesn't match the cover. She also feels the revolution in eBook publishing shows that quality is indeed subjective.

Julie thought that crowd mentality comes into play when we assess the quality of something - which rapidly became the theme for the week.

FOR EVIL TO TRIUMPH disconcerted many people - including me. If you're interested in the excellent Bill Phillips article that originally got me thinking, here it is ...

Kara was as perplexed as me by the Milgram experiments but agrees that she, too, has seen that behavior repeated over and over in life. It doesn't make sense - yet in light of Milgram it does.

Prudence feels that we have a sort of pack behavior built in. Antonia agreed with Prudence about pack animal mentality and also made the good point that we all teach our children to respect authority. How do we teach them when not to?

Adolf Eichmann, the man largely responsible for the death of six million Jews during the Holocaust, mounted his defence on the claim that he was 'just following orders'.

Many people expected Eichmann to be a monster but at his trial he appeared quite ordinary. Here's a very readable and quite chilling article about the 'banality of evil' from Berkely's psychology department. It also explains the power of the dissenting voice and why dictators throughout history have so brutally suppressed criticism.

Like Mandy, Emma liked the post and agreed that it makes sense in relation to Nazi Germany. She also pointed out quite rightly that nothing is worth seeing a child being hurt. Perhaps that is something we have not emphasized enough in our society.

But if you really want to scare yourself, take a look at this; it's a clip about a 2010 fake TV game show in France. 

A group of contestants posed questions to a man sitting inside a box in an 'electric chair.' A beautiful hostess and a chanting audience urged the players to send jolts of electricity into the man  when he gave an incorrect answer to questions.

Even when the player screamed out for them to stop, 80 percent of the contestants kept zapping him. In reality, the man in the electric chair was an actor who wasn't really being shocked — but the players and the audience did not know that.

Christophe Nick, the director, who was using the show for a documentary said: 'Most of us think we are responsible free thinkers but in certain situations power - in this case the power of TV - made people do things they did not want to do.'

One of the participants, Jerome Pasanau, said he was still haunted by the experience."I wanted to stop the whole time, but I just couldn't. I didn't have the will to do it. And that goes against my nature ... I haven't really figured out why I did it."

Pasanau pumped 460 volts of electricity until the actor pretending to be electrocuted appeared to keel over dead.


Who needs vampires and zombies? Ordinary human beings are quite scary enough!

Thank you all so much for your comments. Avagoodweekend Mister Walker!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Out there, beyond right and wrong

On Monday we looked at the dark side of human nature. Now let's look at the light.

The nation of Love has a different religion of all religions - For lovers, God alone is their country and their faith.

There are major Islamic poets who rival the likes of Dante and Shakespeare in terms of output and importance but they are largely ignored in the west. A person might be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing important outside the Western Canon.

Yet there is one Islamic poet whose works have made it onto the USA's Billboard's Top 20 list, and his work has been performed by Hollywood celebrities such as Madonna, Philip Glass and Demi Moore. In 2007 he was described as 'the most popular poet in America.' B&N have more of his titles than Robert Frost or Walt Whitman.

Out there, beyond right and wrong, there is a field. I'll meet you there.

He was born into a world where people lived every day in fear of terrorism. In fact his parents took him out of the country to try and find a better life elsewhere. It was so bad many people thought the world was about to end. Sound familiar? 

Yet he was born eight hundred years ago.

He wrote mostly about love, and our relationship to the divine.

The lover’s ailment is different from all ailments; Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries.

On the 30 September, 2007 school bells all across Iran were rung in honour of his eight hundredth birthday. That year was dedicated to him by UNESCO.

Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.

Many Islamic fundamentalists despise him because of the movement he left behind, the Mevlevi, better known to us as the Whirling Dervishes. They call it un-Islamic because of its emphasis on public song and dance. 

photo: Kivanc Nis

Westerners who may otherwise be afraid of Islam find in him a form of the religion that celebrates dance, music, tolerance and fellowship. In the middle of one of the world's most terrible periods of mass slaughter he spoke against hatred and revenge.

Explanation by the tongue makes most things clear, but love unexplained is clearer.

As an Islamic jurist he issued fatwas, or judgments, yet divorced himself from talk of revenge and retribution. Like Jesus and Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., he insisted violence was redundant. He said that it didn't matter what country he lived in, or what official religion he designated, because the love and longing that he felt was everywhere, including his soul.
As a Sufi mystic, he embraced a mystical closeness to God, and to all other humans, regardless of their faith. At times it is almost impossible to know if he is talking to a lover or to God, so intimate and intense is his poetry.  

A true lover is proved such by his pain of heart; no sickness is there like sickness of heart.

His name was Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, but is better known and more easily pronounced as Rumi.If you had three minutes in your day last week to listen to Joshuah Bell, perhaps you'd like to take another small moment to listen to a small sample of Rumi's poetry put to the music of Hans Zimmer (he's the man who composed the haunting soundtracks to Gladiator and The Last Samurai.)

Rumi lived most of his life at Konya in Turkey, a place I visited a few years ago while researching Harem. If you'd like a copy of it, write to me at colin underscore falconer underscore author at hotmail dot com. Tell me what e-reader you have. The first three emails I get I'll send you a copy.