Peter’s Journal: Washington, Baltimore, Movies, Books and Music

Things have been rather hectic on the travel front lately. First, a couple of weeks ago, I had a trip to Washington, DC, for the National Book Festival. This was a great thrill, as it is by invitation only and includes breakfast at the White House. I hasten to add that it is a non-political festival to promote reading and literacy, so we’ll keep the politics out of it!

The first evening there was a gala banquet for the 70 or so attending writers at the Thomas Jefferson Building, the Library of Congress. My taxi got stuck in rush-hour traffic on my way, and just before we arrived the heavens opened. For some reason I couldn’t fathom at the time, all the streets in the area were blocked off by police, so I had to run about two blocks to the entrance through the torrential rain, wearing my brand new tux for the first time. No raincoat. No umbrella. I was soaked through when I got there, which made standing around sipping white wine (the only kind available) at the reception a bit uncomfortable. Also, I didn’t know anyone there. I searched for Alexander McCall Smith, the only other writer on the list I do know, but I couldn’t find him. And I prefer red wine. Still, it’s a magnificent building–all marble columns and colourful frescos–and there were plenty of cops and secret service people to watch, so I didn’t get bored.

We were soon ushered into the Coolidge Theatre, and in no time at all I saw the reason for the heavy security. The President and the First Lady walked across the stage and sat down a few rows in front of me. The cameras flashed and suddenly the hall seemed full of men with wiggly wires growing out of their ears. As the evening went on, with performances from four of the festival writers, I started to dry out. By dinner time I wasn’t feeling too wet. And there was red wine. I didn’t know anyone at the table, but it was a cosy enough group and in no time we were all chatting away. The food was excellent, and I would like to give special thanks to the young lady who kept my glass brimming! Getting back to the hotel was another nightmare of rain and scarce taxis, but volunteers from the festival kept us dry with umbrellas while we waited at the street corner, and I ended up sharing a ride with three delightful ladies.

Breakfast at the White House was early and I wasn’t particularly hungry. I can’t even remember what I ate. Still, it was interesting to wander around the east wing and look at the portraits and exhibits of historical presidential china and crystal ware on view in glass cases. And I finally found Alexander McCall Smith. Security didn’t seem quite so invasive here, except for the sniper on the roof. After a group photograph, I found myself standing next to Laura Bush, so I smiled and she stuck out her hand and said hello.

The talks and signings took place on the Mall just below the Capitol building, and the whole event had the atmosphere of a fair. Everyone seemed to be having a good time despite the heat and humidity and the occasional shower. I wasn’t on until late afternoon, so I spent much of my time before that in the authors’ pavilion near the massive air-conditioner. The event was short and sweet, and I got to chat with lots of people at the signing. I even met some fans from Yorkshire who just happened to be on holiday and saw my name. Hard to believe, but we even had a mutual friend!

Less than two weeks later I found myself flying in the same direction yet again This time to the Bouchercon, which was held at the Sheraton in Baltimore. (More accurately, one of the Sheratons, as I was soon to discover when I was dashing off to make my Thursday afternoon panel!) Anyway, it was great to meet up with old friends too numerous to mention, though three of them, Laura Lippman, John Harvey and Mark Billingham, were guests of honour in one form or another and deserve a mention. It was also good to see large contingents from both Canada and the UK.

I was there partly to pick up an award for Best Ongoing Series, presented by Jon and Ruth of Crimespree magazine, and a great honour it was indeed. I assured everyone that “ongoing” meant I wasn’t finished yet! In addition to the panels, there were many fine lunches and dinners, including sushi on the Inner Harbour and perhaps the best crab cakes I have ever eaten, at Bertha’s Mussels in Fell’s Point, a beautiful area of old cobbled streets and brick terrace houses. The two panels I participated in went really went well, and on the music panel, Don Bruns even sang the song I wrote for the Merry Band of Murderers anthology. And he sang it very well. The weather cooperated and the sun shone all weekend. All in all, I would say a very successful Bouchercon. The people of Baltimore are friendly, too. On my way up Light Street to the convention hotel on Saturday evening, a young woman said to me, “Why you walkin’ all by yourself, honey? You want a date?” I replied in my most polite English manner, “Thank you very much, dear, but not tonight.”

As for reading, listening and watching lately, there hasn’t been a lot. Two movies stand out. In Bruges is a terrific British crime film about a couple of hit men cooling their heels in Bruges. Though deeply dark and serious in its theme, it is also full of humour, much of it in the exchanges between Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Ralph Fiennes plays a character reminiscent of the crime boss played by Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast.

I didn’t expect to enjoy I’m Not There, though I’m a serious Dylan fan, but I was rather curious about Cate Blanchett. Well, she’s great of course, but so are all the other “Dylans,” and I found myself completely absorbed. There’s no linear storyline so I didn’t have to worry about “following” it, but you can have a lot of fun picking out the visual representations of images from Dylan’s songs, and the soundtrack was great– a risky mix of the well-known and the obscure in some very offbeat and interesting performances.

Talking of Dylan, the new “bootlegs” issue, Tell Tale Signs, is patchy but contains some very good unreleased and live performances. I would especially recommend an acoustic “Mississippi,” “Red River Shore,” “Dreamin’ of You,” a live “High Water,” “Series of Dreams” and “32-20 Blues,” but you’ll find your own favourites.

In a completely different vein, I find myself listening to Renee Fleming’s new release of Strauss’s Four Last Songs and other pieces, and Bernarda Fink’s superb Schubert Lieder.

Finally, I would just like to apologise to anyone who has sent me an email via the website in the last while. I receive them all right, but have a problem when I try to reply. I’m no computer expert, but when I get it sorted out I’ll try to catch up. Only with the nice ones, of course!