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 20thCentury 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