A scene from Starbucks in England

A friend told me this anecdote the other day, and it’s plausibly brilliant.

SCENE: a Starbucks somewhere in England, soon after the coffee chain started asking for people’s names when they order coffee. It’s fair to say this innovation has not sat well with the English. A line of people are waiting to order coffee.

CUSTOMER: A latte, please

SERVER: Certainly. Can I have your name, please?

SERVER holds market pen over cardboard cup. CUSTOMER squirms uncomfortably. There is tension in the queue, broken only by a voice from its rear.

UNKNOWN CUSTOMER: Don’t tell him, Pike.


A lovely day on the Estuary

Anyone who’s read my books will know I have a bad case of the Thames. It’s a very particular strain of the disease, too. You can keep your picturesque stretches alongside the Houses of Parliament, or your genteel meanderings around Kew and Chiswick. No, for me, the real river is wide and grey and ugly and starts at Tower Bridge. It winds up and down and east and west before opening out into the immense skies of the Estuary. Give me Canvey Island over Chelsea, Sheerness over Sheen, any day of the week.

So last week it was an enormous pleasure to board a ship and travel down from Tower Bridge and out into the North Sea and back, via Gravesend, Southend and Sheerness; to sail over the great naval mustering point at the Nore, to see the masts of the SS Richard Montgomery peaking above the waves, and, most of all, to witness the same sunset skies heading back into town as must have once enraptured Turner.

Here’s some pictures from the journey – the first of which I claim no credit for. But I did want to show you the beautiful vessel on which we sailed, and I didn’t get a decent picture myself.

Click on any of the pics to open a nice big gallery viewer.


The Count, Murray and some other guy

Because I’m a sucker for anything featuring the Count.

Benedict Cumberbatch and the Sign of Four (or is it Three?) – YouTube.

Wapping, as found in The Lost Valley of London

Londonist linked to this lovely thing today: the latest in The Lost Valley of London series is all about Wapping. It could even serve as a very good book trailer for my first two books, The English Monster and The Poisoned Island. Pirates, executions, river police, docks, tunnels – it’s all there. Lovely.

The man who loves books but cannot read

A beautiful story in the New York Times, that reads like the opening of  a gorgeous Indian novel:

On the banks of picturesque Dal Lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, sits the only library in the neighborhood, run by a man who loves books but cannot read.

In a single-story wooden house, carefully maintained shelves are filled with around 600 books in several languages, the prize possessions of Muhammad Latif Oata, a 44-year-old handicrafts seller who dropped out of school at age 10 to work.

Over two decades, Mr. Latif, a Kashmir native, has accumulated all these books through exchanges and donations from people who visited his shop, first in Goa, then in Karnataka and now here in Dal Lake, a popular tourist destination. His collection includes books written by authors from many countries, like the United States, Britain, Sweden, Italy and Korea, reflecting the donors’ nationalities.

Since the vast majority of those who visit the library are tourists, he has named it the Travelers Library. Anyone can take a book; all Mr. Latif asks is that borrowers describe the stories contained in the pages of the books they return. Many visitors, who are Indians from other states and foreigners who come to see Dal Lake, leave behind their own books to add to his collection.

via Illiterate, but in Love With Books – NYTimes.com. Thanks to Kate Mayfield on Twitter for this.

Bitcoin explained …. beautifully

This is a beautiful thing; a video by Duncan Elms that offers a three-minute explainer on Bitcoin.

Hat-tip to @moongolfer on Twitter.

Bitcoin Explained on Vimeo

via Bitcoin Explained.

Amazing things, people

This morning, I sent a whiny email to my local councillor about parking in my London street. Sometimes it’s, like, really busy and I can’t find a spot right outside my house and have to walk, like, a whole hundred metres.

And then I saw this amazing video, and stopped thinking about such trivial things.

A heart-stopping rendition of pre-Fire London

My friend Richard Davidson-Houston just sent me this, and it is the most gorgeous and thrilling visual evocation of pre-Great Fire London I think I have ever seen. I’ve just watched it, and am really not exaggerating when I say I held my breath at times.

It’s the work of Pudding Lane Productions, who are six students from De Montfort University (and there’s a name to conjure with, history fans). Find out more about the project, and the astonishing attention to detail that’s gone into this, at their blog.

Pudding Lane Productions, Crytek Off The Map – YouTube.

‘The most famous chord’

This is actually a few months old now, but I’ve only just listened to it and it’s put a great big smile on my face, even though Southern Gas Networks have dug up my street, my front garden and are about to rip up my living room:

The Beatles – The REAL First Chord of “A Hard Day’s Night” – YouTube.

Randy Bachman, of Bachman Turner Overdrive, unpicks the chord, which turns out not to be a chord at all, but two chords and a bass (so three guitars in total, as you’d expect). When they play it after the explanation, you can hear the delight in the musicians, and in the crowd. The Beatles weren’t just musicians. They were alchemists.

Ross Macdonald and The Underground Man

I wrote a little thing for Simon and Schuster’s Dark Pages crime fiction site, on Ross Macdonald’s Underground Man. I’ve cross-posted it here for archiving purposes.

I always like an author photograph on the back of a book. I like to look into the eyes of the person who spent so many weeks and months with the characters I’ve just spent a few days with. I like to look for clues in their expression as to how much of their own personality inhabits the people they’ve created. Stephen King’s eyes are gleeful and warm, James Lee Burke’s world-weary and lined. And Ross Macdonald, the subject of the words that follow, looks like the kind of man who could put up a shed, drink bourbon at lunchtime, talk a suicidal teenager off a roof after dinner, and discuss Shakespeare knowledgeably with Harold Bloom before bed. A true North American Renaissance man.

Ross Macdonald, creator of Lew Archer, wearing a straw hat

Which is exactly how I’d describe Macdonald’s hero Lew Archer. Across eighteen tight but elegiac novels, Archer strides around California like a well-read and ultimately-kind avenging angel. He writes fantastic women (unlike Chandler), and sympathises with those younger females who have lost their way (Macdonald himself had a well-publicised sequence of problems with his own daughter). He punches out bad guys, but has well-stocked bookshelves. And unlike Chandler’s Marlowe, who burned bright but sudden and seems frozen in a pre-war frame, Archer carried on investigating right through the 50s and 60s, while America changed around him. He never grumbles about that. I picture an ageing Marlowe downing martinis in a down-at-heel LA bar in 1968, snarling at the hippies, while Archer heads off to a Jefferson Airplane gig to see what all the fuss is about.

I’m going to recommend a late-period Archer novel for that reason. The Underground Man (not to be confused with Mick Jackson’s book of the same name) has a mysterious forest fire threatening a well-heeled Los Angeles suburb above the ground while family secrets threaten to undermine everything from below. It’s exciting and hard-boiled and tough, but it’s also warm, literate and ultimately kind. Which is how I like to imagine Ross Macdonald himself.