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After The Eclipse

At the maximum of the partial eclipse last Friday I was sitting with my cats, congratulating them on their calm demeanour. I have always believed eclipses to be completely harmless, but the confirmation was reassuring. Not that the show amounted to anything more than a mild darkening of a morning of heavy grey cloud (we never get the fancy stuff, no Northern Lights for us). But if there was a profound effect on this world below, I think we'd have felt it anyway, along with the lucky viewers. Sure enough the Spring of 2015 has continued as before: dull, dry and cold, with ominous bursts of electioneering. I'm less and less interested in these Hogarthian, Eighteenth Century hustings; though of course I intend to vote.

And to doorstep and leaflet for the Green Party candidate for Brighton Pavilion, for the rest of the duration; now that I've cleared my desk. We have our Vote Green and Re-Elect Caroline Lucas posters up in the window, along with our Gabriel Jones and Marianne Wright poster. (I've been imploring him to get a new headshot for years, he finally managed it: a snapshot by Marianne's boyfriend, and it doesn't look half bad, in my opinion. Should last him a decade or so.


The Antigone, Barbican, on Tuesday evening. Prepared by negative reviews to be disappointed, on the contrary this production is excellent. Brilliant staging, the parched plain and the palace interior deftly conveyed with minimum fuss. Great idea to have the principal characters (except Kreon) become voices in the Chorus when they're not otherwise occupied. I'd read about Juliette Binoche, my very favourite screen actress, being a bit of a disaster, a ranting hysteric. Actually nothing like as bad as Kristen Scott-Thomas's useless Elektra at the Old Vic, but it's true Binoche is the weak link, which is a shame. When the play calls for her get impassioned & she just gets shouty, that's the worst bit. It's always the director's fault. is my mantra, when good actors go bad. It definitely isn't Sophocles's fault, anyway. Or Ann Carson's. But who knows? The rest of the cast seemed fine. They were televising the show on Tuesday (for BBC4, I think) so I'm looking forward to seeing how Binoche's interpretation works in that medium.

Terrible pun at the final curtain.

Strangely, (or ominously, if you believe in omens) several high-end reviewers seemed to have gone away with the idea that Antigone is in the wrong. No, she is not! Kreon is in the wrong, obviously. Antigone is defying a despot's indefensible edict. She's right, and everyone in the play agrees with that view, they just don't want to do the actual defying themselves, because they'll get killed . . . She's right, but she can't control the fallout from her right actions. Kreon is wrong, but gets his terrible come-uppance (this is fiction of course).

Maybe that's what whoever it was meant, by saying "Antigone is the perfect tragedy because both sides of the argument are right". Maybe the even-handedness is in the consequences. Antigone is perfect because both sides are unbearable. The one time our heroine weakens; the only time she panics is when her sister Ismene (previously protected by a timid, law-abiding nature), suddenly decides she wants to be killed by Kreon too, and this is very true to life, even today. Despots destroy the people, no question. But moral intransigence isn't a private sport, either. You draw others along with you, your family, your friends. I see it (so to speak) all the time in Amnesty International cases. You will bring hell down on your loved ones. That's the problem all defiers of despots have to face; now or 2000+ years ago.

Anyway, my advice is get tickets if you can (Edinburgh next) and good luck with that.

But enough of this frivolity. Entertainment is a serious business.

Two series that have passed their tipping point

House Of Cards. I forgive them. It had to happen. I can see how the Kevin Spacey team looked at the UK House of Cards scenario and thought, yes, great, but there's got to be something we can do with the Clintons. . . So far, this is not working for me.

Two killer problems (not even counting the silly Tsar of all the Russias strand, which reels about, proving that the US can't do foreign policy, not even in fiction, because they just don't care).

1) I can't see anybody worth pushing under a train. No decent candidates in sight, and without murder at home, where's our entertaining monster? He's become boring.

2) Robin Wright did a fantastic turn as Lady Macbeth, but is floundering as the First Lady who plans to ride to the Oval Office on her husband's name. Needs to have the hubris to believe she could be a President who make a difference (depsite everything she knows). If she just wants a nice office and a big long motorcade she's a carbon copy of her husband. Fair comment, but a bit too subtle to be fun to watch. And that hairdo looks like a comb-over.

The Mentalist Series Seven. So, the infantile hero of his own life has finally killed his father (Manelli, remember?) and married his mother! End here, it sounds hopeful. No mileage left in the "psychic" tricks, nothing to replace them. No chemistry between Baker and Tunney. Barely any physical contact, even, and why would there be? Classic Independent But Caring Woman CopTeresa Lisbon, forced to dress in simpering little girl blouses now she's been demoted from Mom to Girlfriend, must be regretting this . . . It's going to end in tears.

And Finally . . .

Setting my affairs in order #n. Sent off the third of three stories completed since last September. Amazing work rate for me, considering everything else; as a story takes me as long as a novel takes some people, and finally updated my travelogue page, from 2013 to 2015. Which leaves only my Hoglog, and the Aliens In The 21st Century paper to revise and publish, and my work is done. I'll have returned to the present.

& that's all til after Easter, folks.
& soon I will be eating meat and fish again! Hurray!
But not often.

Behind The Beautiful Forevers; and other success-stories

If winter's over, can festival season be far behind? Massimo stopped me on the corner this morning, as I was on my way back from the Post Office, and handed me a copy of the original score of a Bach Partita, the one Gabriel's playing in his Fringe recital in May. It has the post-print alterations and decorations Bach added, listed in the front. Gabriel and Marianne's first recital of the season is even closer, they'll be playing St Michael All Angels on Saturday 28th March: but more of that later. So tired,kept awake all night by a cat with a cough (it's okay, nothing too serious), I'm good for nothing today and just getting by doing errands & clearing off my desk. First, some entertainment from boingboing via Peter.

(The Belle vs Cinders one is much better, and neither really bawdy)


And now to one of my occasional light-reading roundups.

I don't often buy new novels. I save my money for academic and popular science books, which cost a bomb; and nosing around in secondhand bookshops (a dying breed, but there's always the British Heart Foundation, Oxfam & Amnesty), picking up strange flotsam & jetsam. On the other hand, I've become addicted to the library reservation service, as a means of checking out bestsellers. You should try it, only 50p a pop, and if people don't use it, it will go away. Here's my latest catch.

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August Claire North

Billed as a "time-travel story"; more like a claustrophobic vampire vendetta saga. There are people called kalachakras, it means "time-cyclers", who live through the same lifetimes, over and over and over again. Like reincarnation only inexpressibly boring and soul-destroying. As a consequence, as our narrator freely confesses, most kalachakras are miserable s*ds, while many become really really wicked & plan things that will end the world. The story's most ingenious ploy, and also its downfall in my humble opinion, is that these serial immortals, born remembering everything that happened last time, can change the world every time they step into it: by introducing technology "prematurely" and by communicating interesting facts to each other, up & down an aeons-long chain of lifetimes. The ensuing paradox-burden is enough to disable a better story than this. Also, there are far, far, far too many torture scenes.

It was interesting enough to keep me reading. But not by much. If you like the real spying is grim and dreary British school, and you haven't a clue about time travel paradoxes, you may get on fine. Habitual &/or inquiring sf readers should avoid.

Weathering, Lucy Wood

A barely-there literary ghost story, with a Devon river running through it; and a ramshackle house, always on the point of sinking, invaded by the water, where two women's ramshackle, wilfully drifting lives are somehow grounded. There's a mother, there's a daughter, there are the woods, the moor; the birds, glimpsed flashes of kingfisher and heron that the older woman's camera catches; and there's a little girl, a stubborn, naughty little girl called Pepper. In ways nothing much happens, just cranky rural characters getting on with their lives, through many seasons of penetrating damp, icy cold, and ever-threatening flood, but I found this one absorbing. The rising tide of domestic incompetence did start to get me down about half way through (GET THE WOODBURNER-BOILER FIXED for God's sake!) But then Ada, the younger woman, turned out to be very competent at something, and I was hooked again. Lucy Wood has an MA in Creative Writing and it shows. Normally I'd avoid using the expression "beautifully written", believing that it has become a kind of insult, but here I mean it as a compliment. Lovely to read. And Pepper's great. Pepper has stayed with me.

Elizabeth Is Missing, Emma Healey

Maud, in her eighties and struggling with dementia, has become obsessed with the idea that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She's never in when Maud calls round, and her house seems to be empty. Something must be done! Cue exasperated and frustrated carers, and much amusement at the local cop-shop. What nobody realises is that the "missing" Elizabeth, who isn't really "missing" at all, has become a stand-in, in Maud's tumbled thoughts, for another lost loved one, her beloved sister Sukie, who disappeared in 1946. . . Maud has found a heart-stopping clue, and in a moment of clarity she has realised what it means. She's right, but nobody understands, least of all Maud herself, who is doomed to spend the entire book being mocked, feeling like an idiot and forgetting where she put yet another cup of tea that she made and omitted to drink. What was it I was supposed to remember? Train, hammer, pineapple? And why did I have to count down from 100 in sevens . . . ? If you're over sixty, or even over fifty, you may well find this book more disturbing than entertaining, although Maud's tribulations are handled with a light, comic touch (from the viewpoint of a granddaughter, entertained and tolerant; not a hard-pressed middle-aged daughter). But it's really pretty good. I liked it more the further I got from actually having read it.

The Miniaturist Jessie Burton

*A certified massive bestseller, this one; and an interesting and enjoyable historical novel. Young Petronella arrives alone in the big city, to join the sparse household of a merchant husband she's never met, and who shows a total lack of interest; plus his puritanical sister, a manservant from Dahomey and a maid of all work. She witnesses stuff. I can't tell you more, because it would spoil the surprises. Deep emotional attachments spring up from nowhere, likewise outbursts of flashy, soap-opera violence; as if the characters are no more than puppets in the writer's dollhouse, with no inner life at all. There's a crucial strand of the fantastic which is never resolved . . . These elements left me feeling the book was slightly unbalanced, but you can't argue with star quality. It's mysterious (and nor is it true that bestseller status can be bought. It can't. Money can be thrown away on hype, if the public says no). Relax, this isn't War and Peace, it's just a proper good read.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre (live at the Duke's last week)

Highly recommended. Great cast, inspired production. Like Les Miserables with teeth, because this is happening now The only quarrel I had was with the promotional material inviting me to admire the characters' "drive" and their determination to "get ahead". To me the worldly wisdom of the slum dwellers was part of the tragedy. W're all drinking the same dirty water, breathing the same dirty air, and even the poorest of the poor are fooled by those beautiful forevers roaring by over their heads. We all need to learn that corruption is not normal, it's a blight on society, and the greed that drives it is not good.

I love going to see National Theatre productions at the cinema down the road. Sort of reminds me of Proust dialling up a concert on the telephone. & guess what, I have reserved the Katherine Boo book.

The Wind Rises

Finally, last Friday week . . . I didn't want to watch this, I've seen Grave of the Fireflies, thanks. But it's not harrowing, nor is it glorifying war: almost dodges the whole issue, in fact, by ending this bio-pic of the creator of Japan's WWII fighter planes before war actually begins. But not entirely; the message of tragic helplessness is there. (The wind rises, we can't stop it, or drop out, we must just try to live, as best we can). Beautiful and sad, and maybe, if you don't share Miyazaki's passion for those magnificent men in their flying machines, a tiny bit pointless.

Not planning to watch . . .

Televised election debates.

*The book cover montage features flotsam and jetsam from a day when I walked down to the sea in January. The book "If Winter Comes . . . " was a massive bestseller for decades, from 1921 when it took the world by storm, apparently. I really defy you to understand why, should you ever read it: but the WWI patriotism strand is salutory.

Graffam Daffodils: Losing the Map

Saturday 14th March, another dry, chilly, still and overclouded day, we drove to the other side of the world, beyond Petworth if you can believe it, & all to see the native daffodils at Graffam. This walk, which is a very good one but not to be undertaken lightly, now involves negotiating the Heathland Project, currently in process = the NT and Sussex Wildlife Trust conspiring to make a desolation out of the pine plantations of Lullington, Lavington and Graffam Common, (100 yrs old or so and ready for harvest) on the way to restoring the ideal state of land use (around 1763, I think). I'm not really complaining, I like adders, and on heathland there might be boletus, which I can eat, but at the moment it's a heap big mess. Anyway, we weathered it, with the help of directions from a friendly woman on a v. pretty chestnut: found our way to the stream and the woodland ridge above; where the daffodils grow. Whoever called them a "Wordsworthian profusion" hasn't visited Ullswater in the season, but they were lovely, and stretching far away under the bare trees, if not actually fluttering and dancing. Previously too early or too late, we made it on time this year: make a note of it, said Peter, & so I have. We lost the map later on, which involved some racing with the sunset, so as not to spoil a very good day out with a mishap. It was where it had been dropped, safe & sound; so an end to racing, & the two of us sitting looking across the powdery-blue shadowed valley, listening to the thrushes shout their evening song; me rubbing my sore feet.

My Fracking Round-Up: What About Balcombe?

If you don't already know, Celtique Energie made a surprise announcement last week: Greg Davies has decided to abandon his appeal against the council's decision to refuse permission for senseless unconventional oil/gas extraction at Wisborough Green. & also abandon all plans to drill at Fernhurst, inside the South Downs National Park. Good of him, eh?

Will Francis Egan of Cuadrilla now realise that oh, wow, never noticed, Balcombe is in an Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and officially abandon his plans there? I suspect not. He'll want to keep a foot in the door.

The Wealden frackers will be back. They've not even gone away. The CE/Magellan Billingshurst fracking site, with all the usual prevarication in place, is still due to be drilled this Spring

Despite everything we're hearing about a committment to dramatic carbon-emission targets, and a "growing realisation" that catastrophic climate change actually IS a terrifying disaster it would be a good idea to avoid, nothing's changed since we heard that story last time, and even the UK shale gas bonanza surges on.

Oh well. Congratulation KKWG. It's still good news.

The daffodils are standins. These ones, although native species, are in my garden

Even If and Old Venus

Saturday 7th March, 7.00pm at the New Venture Theatre Brighton. "Following our success, reading Even If We Lose Our Lives (interviews with Afghan Women Human Rights Defenders, scripted for Amnesty as part of the Afghan Women's Rights Campaign) with Radio Free Brighton last May, we decided to look for a venue for a live perfomance. The New Venture Theatre, a not-for-profit theatre company with a great reputation, is donating a cabaret performance space with all facilities (including a bar for snacks and drinks) for a one night show in March; to be followed by a talk and discussion on the current situation in Afghanistan, lead by Christine Usher, Amnesty UK Country Coordinator for the region.

Even If We Lose Our Lives, an account of what three women have done and sacrificed for their country, through years of danger and war, is a powerful and moving experience, for the performers as well as the audience. We hope we can do them justice, and make our show on 7th March (International Women's Day weekend) a celebration of their achievements and their courage.

To reserve a seat contact:
Booking essential as space is limited.
No ticket charge. Donations to Amnesty International at the event."

Congratulations to George R R Martin, Gardner Dozois and all the contributors, on the official publication day for Old Venus. It was great fun writing my story, and I'm delighted to be in your company. Here's my submission email for "A Planet Called Desire" (anyone who tells me where the title comes from gets a prize, you naughty person.)

"Dear Gardner,

Having read around the subject of Old Venus, in fact, fiction and speculation, and discovered the Ancient Venus Habitable Zone hypothesis, I decided to channel Eddison, with a splash of H.G.Wells, and embed my story in a contemporary frame; just as the Old Masters did. I invented a hero of our times, and a sorceress-queen of Venus, and came up with the attached submission. I hope it fits into your brief. I really enjoyed this task, thank you for inviting me."

And here's a selection of my Venus/Old Venus trail links:

Venus Morning Star, Venus Evening Star (the phases)

Lore of the Dogon

Was Venus Once A Habitable Planet?

Colonising Venus With Floating Cities

Guest voices: Venus in Transit

Out in the garden the sun is bright, signs of Spring begin to gather, and we're onto our seventh clutch of fertile spawn. These frogs, almost vanished a few years back, are on a hiding to nothing, a boom and bust cycle, we'll just have to do our best.

Listening to Tasmin Little playing the 2nd movement of the Ligeti violin concerto, one of my favourite pieces of music, and my favourite performance