Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Dateline London and Bristol: CrimeFesters

 My recent trip to England had two goals: to have at the extensive collection of the British Library for research on my forthcoming African series and to attend CrimeFest, an international conference of crime writers.  Not to mention my need for escape and a dose of faraway places to quell my wanderlust.

After many arrangements, some quite frantic, late on May 25th, my plane took off for Heathrow.

I had gazillions of miles of business travel under my belt, but it had been more than a decade since I had gone solo internationally, and I was trepidatious. The only practical way I could think of to fight my pre-travel anxiety was to buy (at unconscionable expense) a super-light suitcase that would give me at least a fighting chance of muscling (term used advisedly) my luggage on and off trains without help.  Said wonder-grip has four wheels and shortly after my arrival, it tried to escape by rolling down the aisle of the Tube train from the airport to St. Pancras Station.  It was headed directly for a three-year-old in a stroller.  Luckily for the baby, her dad stopped it in time, and with lovely British manners, suggested he might turn it on its side so it would stay put.

The hotel end of St. Pancras Station
St. Pancras Station is a splendor of Victorian red brick gingerbread that had been allowed to go to rack and ruin until it was recently turned back into a palace of rail travel, this time with ticket windows and train platforms, but also lots of shopping and an upscale hotel.  Since the British Library is just across the street, I chose to spend two nights in that new, quite swanky hostel.

1909 English gown and hat
On Sunday, after a full English breakfast that served as lunch for my jet-lagged tummy, I made for the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I looked at early 20th Century clothing.  Very elegant. 

The British Library at St. Pancras
That Monday morning, I crossed the street to the British Library, carrying a notebook and many well-sharpened pencils (no pens allowed near the books).  The BL has the second largest collection in the world, topped only by the Library of Congress. Its unparalleled mass of material on British East Africa before 1920 was my target.  But The British Library is unlike the marble palace of free knowledgethe New York Public Librarythat I have bragged of frequently on these pages.  For one thing, the BLs modern building looks like a prison from some vantage points.  For another, one cannot just walk in, ask for knowledge, and receive it.  Readers need credentials.  Hoping for a full day and a half to immerse myself in Africanalia, I had used the BL website to preregister and request materials.  All I would need to do was present my multiple proofs of identity and residence, and I would be in.  I thought.

As it turns out, our Memorial Day is also a holiday in the UK; it goes by the pedestrian name Bank Holiday Weekend.  Though the library was open for visiting the exhibitions, the reading rooms and the credentialing center were closed.  Boohoo.

Cheer up, I told myself, you are in London; its not as if there is nothing else to do.

The British Museum was a mere fifteen minutes walk away.   There I visited the African art rooms and found several things that were from the area and period of my new series.  Here are a few that are sure to show up in future stories.

Kikuyu Witchdoctor's rattle
Early 20th Century Masaai Swords
After a Tuesday morning spent reading those elusive library books, I took the train to Bristol, scene of the CrimeFest, which I walking-toured on Wednesday.  It is a post-industrial port city that made its early fortune on the slave trade, is a university town, and has some splendid ancient buildings, but a hip, twenty-first century energetic vibe.
Interior Bristol Cathedral

Ancient monument in St. Stephen's Church, Bristol, with modern addition 

CrimeFesta mystery conference with a solid international focusran from Thursday to Sunday, and I had a chance to attend many very interesting and extremely witty panels where writers I admire presented.   And to get acquainted with new writers whose work I know I will enjoy.  Best of all was the time I spent with some dear and delightful writer friends.

CrimeFesters: Stan Trollip (Michael Stanley), me, Jeff Siger, Caro Ramsay,
Yrsa Sigurdardottir,and Michael Sears (Michael Stanley)
I also got to meet Sherlocks brother Mycroft.

Mark Gatiss with Emma's drawings
My darling granddaughter Emma is a huge fan of the British TV series Sherlock.  When she found out that its creators and one of its stars would be presenting at CrimeFest, she gave me some of her original drawings to present to Mark Gatiss, who plays Mycroft Holmes and also writes some of the episodes.  CrimeFest returned Emmas favor.  At Saturday evenings awards banquet, I bought a raffle ticket and won---an autographed set of the DVDs of Sherlock seasons one and two, which will be delivered to Emma forthwith (as the Brits say) now that her Nonna is home.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. How marvelous! I wish I were there.

  2. My husband I went to London in October. Thanks for those pictures. They brought back some great memories. We did get to the British Museum and this lovely woman sitting near the door who looked liked she'd just stepped from the pages of a Barbara Pym novel was trying to tell us about some of the exhibits. She said, "And then we have this exhibit something about men and a road trip or something." We went upstairs to find the roll of paper on which Jack Kerouac wrote "On the Road." I knew it was making the rounds but I hadn't expected to find it in London.

  3. Annamaria, I'm fascinated they don't allow pens near the books. Can you share with us how they know? Do they frisk/search you? Do you have to sign a promise or what? What is the punishment if you sneak one in and one of the librarians sees you with a pen?T.S. Straw

  4. Thanks, all, for your responses. Thelma, once credentials are processed and the readers are awarded a special picture ID, they go to the cloak room, take clear plastic bags and load into them pencils, notebooks, and computers, and chargers, but no other things of any sort. All other possessions are checked. You enter the reading room by showing the ID, and the bag is inspected. On leaving, the bag is inspected again. The biggest annoyance for me was that the librarians made the sort of noise one would expect in a train station. THAT was totally unexpected. Fortunately, I brought my headphones so I could put them on and blot out that chat.

  5. Hmmm, those gabby book folks! I was a member for years at the New York Society library and used to spend whole days there, it is so comfortable! They never checked your belongings then, maybe they do now. If anyone is looking for a marvelous place to work on your writing, read, do research, enjoy the world of books - I heartily suggest it! Lots of great little places to get lunch close by, too - East 79th St, just off Madison, the block east of King Mike B. tjs