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Our Neighbours...

Tuesday 7th May, a beautiful warm clear morning, soft overcast gathering now. Still no swifts but I won't give up on them yet. The migrants are all arriving late, and a pack of swifts were spotted yesterday, passing the Pointe de Grave and heading this way. Maybe we'll yet see them again here in Roundhill, one more time. See left for a photo of my neighbours, the gulls. Hobbies include dropping moss, pooing copiously, and staring at Milo through the landing window, on purpose to annoy him (Ginger is hard to wind up). Last week, one of the couple came up and rapped on the glass. But I am not yet scared. Time was, not so many years ago, our teeming colony of rooftop-nesting Herring Gulls kept us awake, screaming and yelling and having neighbourly fights, all the way from May to October. No longer... Silence of the Gulls. I'd like to think they've moved on, but their amber status on the RSPB list seems to tell me different. Population in steep decline, same old story. Even Herring Gulls! This is the second year these two have nested on my chimneystack, I know they lost at least one chick last year (found its broken little body). Hope they have better luck this time.

What a busy holiday weekend! Have been thanked by Ed Milliband for helping him to win a terrific victory (Honestly, Ed, it was nothing). Have walked out in the Ouse watermeadows, spying on fish and frogs and birds & collecting mud. Have set out to go bluebell-viewing (Saturday), but turned back owing to having noticed it was cold, grey, actually raining quite hard and those Weather Persons had been just plain LYING to us... Have temporarily wrecked my back, gardening on Sunday, and spent the really pretty day (Monday) flat on it, watching the sky...

Escape Plans, PS:

I'm charmed to see how many of you have taken up the free download challenge (passing 250, last time I looked. Wow); despite me trying to scare you off. If any of you actually reads the book, and can prove it, I'll have to think up some sort of prize. Another PS: the second of Peter's birthday books (the ones that failed to arrive and worried me) was Tubes, Andrew Blum "A Journey To The Centre Of The Internet". I thought this would be gonzo journalism, given Blum's Wired credentials, and I thought it would be an overnight sensation, given the content. It isn't and it wasn't, though it has taken off now. In fact the prose style, pedestrian and often clunky, is its weakest point (other weakest point, clearly a little bit gagged: these are people eg the mighty Google, you wouldn't want to mess with). But gripping, eventually, and a thorough education in what that cute term "the Cloud" really means. Not at all about the Systems that actually keep us alive, maybe, but still, an admirable profile of the digital entity (or entities) that was God: the way it happens in the real world

Escape Plans: 2 Days Free Download

Thursday 2nd May, blue sky, bright gardens & it's actually warm out there. And here's the epub cover of Escape Plans, which I've finally managed to make available on Kindle.

Download it for free on Monday 6th or Tuesday 7th May

One fine day, I realised the shocking truth: I was going to die. I remember the occasion distinctly. I know where I was (the Protestant Cemetery, Singapore); I know how old I was (28), I know how I was feeling (happy). I even know what I was wearing, all that's missing is exactly why this distant future event was suddenly immediate.

Maybe it was because all my dreams had come true. Ever since I could remember, I had longed to be an explorer, to fly away from Manchester, to fly away from grey England. I'd plotted the great escape & here I was, having an adventure, living the dream. Like Godfrey Gordon Gustvus Gore, I'd sailed away (Quantas flight really) to Singapore. Walked on tropic beaches, braved the waves on Kuta Beach: climbed volcanoes, seen the Ramayana Ballet by moonlight. Got very lost in Bali, wandering in the green rice fields. . . And I was writing a novel about the greatest escape of all. The end of our humanity, the costly, glorious breakthrough into a new heaven and a new earth.

Science Fiction's all about cool faraway places; travellers' tales. Everybody does it. But by the time Divine Endurance was published, I'd done with the borrowed Eastern Mysticism, the science indistinguishable from magic. I was getting into computers, teaching myself to program, loving The Right Stuff and The Soul Of A New Machine, (the 1981 version) and for my next trick (an attack of conscience, maybe?), I planned to stick to my own culture, and Western Mysticism, the monotheism that has shaped so much of modern science. And by "Western", I'm afraid I also mean you, dear Muslim cousins in the Faith: sorry about that. This time I would tell the story of the Great Escape (my favourite topic) in Space Age, hard science/fiction terms. No miracles, only strict, rational extrapolation from the cusp of the present. I had no idea I was thinking like a cyberpunk.

Things are not looking too good. The Space Race has run aground. The solar system is a cold desert, good for mining, or extreme tourism, really not worth the work or the expense of colonisation. The stars are out of reach, and worst news of all, where are those aliens? . What if the answer to Fermi's very good question is that they are not here because we are not there? What if there's a party going on, outside our sad bubble (I was very taken with Stephen Hawking's Bubble Universes), but we're not invited. Nobody can even reach us with an invitation. Maybe out there, beyond the crystal sphere, there is no death, there is no end to the adventure... We'll never know, it's not for us. For us, this is it, short lives, eternal exclusion.

Here we are, then. The VENTURans are descended (ie fictionally) from the heroes of the Space Race. They speak an evolved form of English called Acronymic. It's like listening-in to the chit-chat between Houston and an Apollo mission, a little hard for natural English speakers to follow. The Subs, the elite of the downtrodden masses left behind, firmly believe the best chance of getting out of jail is to become a machine process. True to Turing, they know (computer) logic operations cannot be bound by our bubble: the same rules must apply throughout the universe. They are also pretty hard to follow... Then there's ALIC, who blunders about being a tourist, so she can have a few things explained to her, for your benefit, dear reader (but not too many). There's Millie Mohun, who may or may not be a messenger from the Outside, come to tell us what we have to do to escape, out of the body of this death. And there's Yolande, the brilliant Sub intellectual, who takes the Millie idea and runs with it...

No miracles. Millie Mohun might be the Messenger. Or she might simply be a charismatic Sub teacher with a problem past. Nothing supernatural. Only the longing, and the mysterious way ALIC ends up, the feelings and the changes that she can't explain.

It's a challenging read. The critics, back then, were probably kinder than I deserved.

But it never occured to me that having an all female cast (except for one handsome young man, for decorative purposes) would be a problem. He even gets some of the best lines.

"lesbian tripe that chokes the reader with jargon"
Brian Stableford, Foundation

"If there was an award for the novel with the most acryonyms, this would win hands down" goodreads

"Cyberpunk SF is a very American product: the nearest thing to a British version is Gwyneth Jones's novel Escape Plans, which is fairly heavy going to begin with (lots of jargon and horrible acronyms) but opens out into a nastily persuasive vision of a future world where computer systems have been so absorbed into our environment that they virtually are the whole environment."
Dave Langford PCW Plus 1987

"Genuinely twisted..." Bruce Sterling, Cheap Truth 1986

You have been warned!

Free download, if you're still interested: Monday May 6th, Tuesday May 7th

Swifts, Sainsburys and the Bees

Wednesday 1st May, another clear blue sky day, a fraction more warmth than last week, but when did I last see the trees still bare on May day? I'd have to search the archives.

Why is it so cold?

It's the east wind.
It's a blocking system possibly caused by, erm, arctic meltwater or something odd like that
It's climate change, it means everyone gets more extreme weather more often & it can be just nasty, as well as weird and spectacular.
It's thermohaline circulation starting to break down, which would be so awful, nobody would tell us.
It's because the government won't pay any attention to the scientists
It's because there will be no votes in paying attention to climate change until things get much worse than this. Which they will.
It's the immigrants, they make it cold by taking our jobs.
It's the poor, they eat too much
It's the great turtle sneezing

Take your pick!

I made up that list in March, hopefully it's now out of date, and the weather will become glorious. It's been so cold and bitter down here, for so long, I only realised at the weekend that I should have been expecting the swifts, and searching the skies for them. Not this year. Some are coming in over Devon, but only a couple of vagrants have been spotted in Sussex. Will our surviving handful of Black Arrows make it to Brighton, one more time? I hope they do.

Sainsburys and the Bees

So, on Monday, the EU voted on the neonicotinoids, and a moratorium on their use was declared (a news item that lasted about 10 minutes on the BBC's front page, despite clearly attracting a huge amount of public interest). Our man Owen Patterson, despite our protests, despite overwhelming scientific, political and public support for a ban, voted as his natural loyalties dictated, in favour of Bayer and Syngenta (the makers of the pesticides)*. I suppose there's no use telling any of these people that you can't eat money.

On the other hand, I thought Sainsburys might listen to reason. Rival supermarket giant Waitrose had already told its suppliers they must stop using clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam on crops attractive to pollinators, before the vote. So why not? I decided to start lobbying. After all, they've got a lovely page about Bee Hotels up on Sainsburys plc. . . So far, I've asked them why they weren't following Waitrose's example, and @customerservices has told me (once they'd figured out what I was on about, sort of) that Sainsburys is committed to cuddling the environment, and loves all living things to bits, but outlawing dangerous yet profitable pesticides would be taking things too far. Now I've written again, asking them what they plan to do about the moratorium.

I'll let you know how I get on.


The Innkeepers, Indie horror (TUH!) which I was looking forward to but missed at the Dukes so I recorded it off the tv. Utterly futile. BUT we then watched Evil Dead II, as Gabriel was down for the weekend and had it by him. Utterly glorious, unequalled classic, although I'm not convinced streaming things through the Wii really works.

And the latest tv Swedish police procedural, "Arne Dahl" (why the writer gets that special billing I don't know; maybe a form of iconic jumper?). Grows on you.


New Scientist. For weeks I never get round to reading New Scientist, and I have been guilty of complaining that it's just the same old feature stories, recycled over and over since circa 1984; also guilty of gnashing my teeth over the dreadful tide of human interest and social issues material. Enough! Keep it for your Facebook page! But for some reason I've just been feasting on about a month's supply of really thrilling, nifty and exciting stuff. Top favourites, the vr development that will allow (eg) gamesplayers to run around loose in an immersive virtual world, never bumping into each other or walking through walls (unless the game wants them to); while actually confined in a room not much bigger than somebody's back bedroom. This is just what I needed for the games arenas in North Wind and Phoenix Cafe! And then last week (Quantum Deep Space, 20th April), finally, the experiment that tests quantum theory against general relativity. Satellite mediated, China facilitated, do the weird phenomena (eg, entanglement, and the collapsing wave function thing that backs quantum cryptography) survive in the bigger picture? Or do they vanish!

That's been a long time coming. Very exciting. And who will have the last laugh this time? Einstein or the good lord?


Good news from the Brighton front line: after a council meeting on 30th April, the Seven Dials elm (@saveourtree) is saved. More bad news from Brighton: yet another school playing field is to go under, if Mr Gove has his way & one of those new kind of private schools to go on top of it. Already used by several schools, the playing fields would be sacrificed and replaced by an influx of kids getting bused in from outside the area... Please consider signing the petition

*Honestly, I bet they don't even care, I bet they don't reward this toadying at all. It's just a lobbying reflex big corporations have: anybody wants to ban something we sell (eg tobacco cigarettes), we stop them, no holds barred. We don't think about it all. Because we can.

Ash Dieback: Season Two

Tuesday 23rd April. Cold sea, warm sun. Morning mist takes a while to clear, down here by the seaside, but when it burns off the skies are blue, the afternoons pleasant enough for people in the street to shed layers. The meal worms vanish swiftly, the goldfinches flirt about, and the blackbirds sing and sing. My tadpoles are doing well.

Spring at last, and the waiting is over, the seeing has begun. What's going to happen to the ash trees? Will they be gone in a decade, devastating our landscape?

Over the winter the defra scorecard has shown a steady increase in infected sites (484 currently): but outside East Anglia these sites are still, almost without exception, infected new plantings, ie, nursery reared saplings imported from infected countries in continental Europe, or else (which is the way the Woodland Trust got caught out) seedlings from the UK, exported to continental European nurseries; infected while reared there and then imported back here). How are things going to change, when the buds begin to break? Maybe not at all. Maybe chalara fraxinea doesn't actually spread like wildfire over here? Maybe the infection hits resistance as soon as it leaves East Anglia? Or some other kind of obstacle? Or maybe, and more likely, alas, the defra survey is just very limited... I have no idea.

I was reminded, up in Cumbria, how important these trees are to me. The lovely wayward growth of their branches in winter, their place in folklore (ash will be late this year, held back by the long, cold winter). Those iconic black buds, and the individual trees that have become part of my psychological landscape. I wish there was something I could do. A few weeks ago I asked the Sussex Wildlife Trust what plans they had for responding to the outbreak. Monitoring the ash woodlands on their reserves? Identifying and reported infections, and keeping an eye out for resistance? Maybe training volunteers to help with that task? Or with clearing away infected leaf litter, so the trees don't get re-infected? (It takes several doses of the fungus to overwhelm a tree of any size, & the spores lurk in fallen leaves) I got a cheerful "no not really! We just plan to let it happen" response. And the advice that, though it will be "frustrating" to watch so many trees die, I'd better get used to it. The same message is repeated in the latest SWT mailing to members. A little frustrating, indeed: but understandable, I suppose. There's an awful lot of ash trees in Sussex, especially in the West. In West Sussex, second most wooded county in England, holding 40% of our surviving ancient woodland, the dominant broad-leaved tree is ash, and they're all over the place, not neatly concentrated.

On the other hand, information is power, or sometimes consolation.

I was bemused at first by news that the Forestry Commission plan to combat chalara involved planting 250,000 young ash trees. What's the use of that? They'll just die! But the saplings are to be planted in East Anglia, native stock, genetically diverse, they will be exposed to infection and hopefully some of them will prove resistant.

I've learned from other sources (actually, a Gardener's World article, which I take to be fairly trustworthy), that it's not a complete wipe-out. Young trees will certainly die if they get infected, and in months not years. Trees from 10-20 years old will probably succumb, a little more slowly. Trees from 20-40 yrs have a better chance of fighting off the infection, they will get sick, but survive for years. And "There is little evidence that mature trees, over 40 yrs old, will ever be overwhelmed by the disease alone..."

So that's good news. With the caveat that a tree struggling with a serious fungal infection is far more vulnerable to other pests and trauma.

Anyway, here's what the National Trust has to say:

& here's a report from Plant Science


In Cumbria a couple of weeks ago we met the larch tree killer, phytophthora ramorum, face to face: there's an infection in the Japanese Garden, Eskdale Green. But all the larches are on their way out, along with most of the mature conifers, no matter what. To be replaced by native woodland (leaving an awful Paschendale landscape of stumps in the meantime; it's not a pretty process) Ironic, huh? Wordsworth fulminated against those larches, but by my time they were beautiful: vivid green in spring, red-gold in autumn, haunt of red squirrels, goldcrests; silence. . . It's natural, it's normal, all things must pass, pests will come and go, and occasionally we must expect a devastating disease (cf the Great Wine Blight): the "nature" we have made will recover, with help.

The threats just mustn't come too thick and fast, or our managed, anthropogenic "nature" will not change and move on. It will become degraded, impoverished and unrecognisable. Intervention needs to be stepped up, on every scale, to deal with the world we live in, not the "let nature take its course" world we may fondly remember.

Occupy Sussex

Monday 21st April, light rain overnight, followed by another fine day, chill breeze, honey sun, soft cloud. It is definitely Spring. As we walked up through Stanmer Park on Friday evening, bud-break was all around us in the young trees, including the threatened ash, and looking richer than in other years; and while we were eating at Stanmer Pub, a bat flitted over the cricket lawn outside, in the calm evening.

To the Magistrates Court last Thursday, in solidarity with the four students arrested during the heavy-handed police action to break up the Occupation of Bramber House (a protest against privatisation: you can read about it here: and here: Conversation turned to colour-bagging. Red is the People's Flag; True Blue is Tory. Orangey gold is (among other afiliations) whatstheirnames, the didn'tyouusedtobetheLiberals. Green is the Party of Social Justice, and the Environment (Davy Jones, prospective Green Party parliamentary candidate for Kemptown, had turned up too. Good for him). Pink is spoken for, the Rainbow is spoken for. Can we have yellow as the colour of Protest? It's not going to work. Yellow is the colour of nondenominational warning, watch out; the police and others have got dibbs on it. It's the Imperial colour in China, anyway.

But I commend these young people. It's heartening to know (from #Occupy Sussex that the University of Central Lancashire sity today decided to drop privatisation plans. So, not quite in vain, kids. Even if you do get criminal records.


Most of Zefirelli's Hamlet movie last night. Pretty dire! (despite Glenn Close's sprightly, manic Gertrude: clearly maxed-out on mother's little helpers). But at least Peter now knows that this elusive play is indeed stuffed with quotations.

And Broadchurch. Who did it, eh? If this had been the real world, my money would have been on that strange bloke who has popped up from time to time, proffering messages from the beyond, but I must have missed the episode where he is put out of the running. Also Scott and Bailey although I'm getting a bit tired (already, two shows in) of the Ooop North stereotyping. I don't even like Manchester, I was just born there, but there's more to the old Blingsville that this. London is not the only great city in the UK, or even in England, thanks.


Sorted out the palm oil free soap. If you feel like splashing out look no further than the RSPB Dipper range:

We are currently using Aleppo Gold, the entry level one, and it's fine. Thick primitive chunks, smelling of bay laurel, very long lasting. Oliva is also good, and you're likely to have a local stockist.


Just finished Mark Crocker and Richard Mabey's Birds Britannica, that Peter got me for my birthday. I loved this book, mighty tome that it is; you wouldn't want to drop it on your foot. Not enough pictures, though. & it's chilling to realise how many more household name bird populations have plunged, just in the last few years (since this quirky catalogue was compiled ie). The swift, the skylark, the lapwing, the cuckoo. . . I could go on. I won't.

Sword at Sunset & The Once And Future King. Arthuriana classics I bought 2nd hand for Peter, when I thought his birthday books wouldn't arrive. Was meaning to buy them for his ereader, but got warned off by reviews of the quality of the transcription (I keep running into this issue). Sword At Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff (1963), richly supplied with gory, set-piece battles, lovingly worked out; an unexpected wealth of heart-catching, nature writing. Tiny bit fascist. It's absorbing, but grim, far grimmer than I remembered it The certainty of doom and of personal disaster are ever present. Sort of Arthur as Macbeth. (I probably didn't mind this when I was a teenager, probably just found it romantic). The Once And Future King, T H White. Some people swear by this one, but the famous love affair doesn't half go on a bit. I'll think I'll stick with The Sword In The Stone. And memo to self, re-read The Goshawk.

It's Only A Tree. But. . .

Wednesday 17th April, mild windless air; a soft overcast, downy grey and white quilted and threadbare blue. Forsythia and Almond blossom spring-flower gardens and birdsong outside my window. Coming down from Cumbria, having been, for a week or two, as offline as humanly possible if you leave all the chargers at home, we were quite shocked when the trees remained leafless as we hit the sunny south, but now I do believe Spring has sprung. Yesterday I brought in the traditional bowl of tadpoles, and placed a rather over-powering sugary hyacinth bouquet by my bed, to replace (at last) the chaste ivy and pine of the New Year.

I kind of miss the ivy and the pine, but their turn will come round again.

With some trepidation I checked SaveOurTree, and I'm glad to report the Seven Dials Elms (although there's some controversy about "root-trimming" going on today) seems to have made it through the B&H Council's lengthy deliberations. . . So far. Don't count on it. But a small triumph, as I have said, over Mr Gradgrind, and the whole brutal project of the so-called profit-motivated, so-called aspirational mindset: the sensible life, whose only passion is hatred, and a local news story that's been a useful corrective to popular assumptions. Everybody was having fun, last month, about the spluttering and shuffling of the "Green" controlled Council of Brighton&Hove. Greens caught in the act of planning to chop down a hundred year old elm tree! One of the sacred urban elms in this last stronghold of the English Elm, for no very good reason at all! What were they thinking!!. .
Many feeble excuses and much flailing about later, the genuine explanation seems to be that our Council, lead by our Green Council leader, looked at the tree, saw nothing of particular value, and didn't realise there would be a fuss. Fine. But why didn't they realise the tree was valuable all by themselves?

Maybe the answer is that the Green Party is not now, if it ever was, the party of the Natural World. Social Justice, yes (and a very necessary role too!). But trees, now: trees have to come last. A caring, inclusive and democratic Green society will enable everyone to do valuable work, follow their interests, interact with their community and enjoy nature. A Green government will have the courage to pursue responsible solutions to our social, economic and environmental crises through its commitment to fairness, citizen participation, shared responsibility, peace and environmental protection.

I don't want to be mean, I hope the Green Party is a little more sincere than the "greenest government ever" but Dave Cameron's copywriter could easily have penned that lot.

Nightingales may still be silenced at Lodge Hill, whichever Party is pulling the trigger. Trees and little brown birds really cannot be at the forefront or in the foreground for any party aspiring to govern. There's only one way to minimise the losses: to keep these people on their toes, we have to convince them, and keep on convincing them, that trees, and little brown birds, can vote. That there IS a party of the Natural World, and honestly, it isn't altogether, or even mainly, about "Green Jobs" or "Sustaining Economic Growth Responsibly". It's about the natural world for its own sake, it's about things many people aren't prepared to sacrifice; it's just for love.

PS Dear Plashing, thanks for the electroluminescent paint link. I don't think you could get straight from this stuff to Aoxomoxoa's neurologically controlled skull mask, but it's definitely a step on the way.

Actually, back in the olden days...

Tuesday 12th March. Snow is easing now; gleams of brilliant sun outdoors. Have moved my white camellia into the greenhouse, hope I did that in time; also filled the bird feeders, but there don't seem to be many takers.

Actually, back in the olden days, before there was climate change, I remember this was the normal weather in March, in Cumbria (where we'll be in a week or two). From one day to the next, vicious cold winds and snow, then sun and all the flowers (of course, above 2000ft it could get very nasty: I remember a legendary exploit with my older sister, making our way along Striding Edge in a blizzard, and promising each other we would try to fall on the Patterdale side, because it was more human down there, although we would be dead...) I've been thinking about the traffic too. Why all this grinding to a halt? It never used to happen, not even in the eighties, when we last had a run of cold winters in Sussex. What's the difference? (Allowing that cutting down the trees that sheltered Handcross Hill wasn't a good idea*). It's purely the density. There are too many cars, and this has happened in the last twenty years. That's what makes winter weather intolerable, infuriating and all that for all the hordes of drivers. What's the solution? We need fewer cars! So simple. And stop cutting down trees!

A Conversation with FriendsLife...

Monday 11th March, snow. A healthy dusting of white deposited overnight, but now it's really snowing. It's snowing quite hard. Have made several attempts to get my son (down for the weekend) out of bed. Gabriel, it's snowing, Gabriel, there's delays at Three Bridges, Gabriel... I think he's stirring now.

A conversation with my pension provider

Been meaning to make this call for a while...

The FriendsLife website "members area" is a waste of cyberspace, or was last time I looked, I've given up on it long ago. But that's okay, what I'm doing today is only fun if I talk to a human being.

I get through at once, no nested options. Points to FL. FriendsLife wants to know how she can help me.

G: well, it's a query about something in the latest Projected Benefits Illustration your firm sent me. The wording is puzzling. Could you put me through to someone who...

FL: (resigned tone) No, no, need. I can probably help. Just tell me what your query is.

G: Oh? Really? Well, okay... It's not about figures at all, it's this bit (reads aloud) "The pension is payable every month in advance for at least five years or until you die." It's that last bit. It just sounds odd. What does it mean "Until you die"? What happens if I don't? Is someone from FriendsLife going to come around and shoot me?

FL: (It is clear that she has fielded this query often, in varying witty forms, and is tired of it) Laughs lightly. No, no! The pension will go to your next of kin until the end of five years, even if you die. Otherwise, it goes on being paid for the rest of your life.

G: Oh, good. So, if I live to 3000, FriendsLife will go on paying my pension?

FL: yes, that's right.

G: And I don't have to do anything, except keep paying my premiums, and then collect my pension?

FL: That would be right.

G (in her head): So. Would you agree that FriendsLife is using that curious wording to avoid using the term lifetime annuity, in the transparent hope that unwary pension fund investors will believe they don't already have a lifetime annuity, and, convinced by the hardsell in the rest of your mailing, will sell the money they put into their pension fund to you, and buy another product, a totally unnecessary transaction from which the firm will cream £XXXX in commission and "administrative costs"???

My admirably good-tempered friend on the other end of the line has so clearly been teased to death by sarcastic pension customers that I don't bother teasing her any further, and we part friends.

But watch out!

Torture World

Friday 8th March, unbroken grey skies, the goldfinches flirting their yellow underwings, a hen blackbird and a fat woodpigeon mooching about, picking up crumbs, a slight persistent rain, that I can see in dimpled rings, steadily forming, one by one, on the surface of the dark fish pool. It still feels springlike out there, but apparently that's not going to last.

To Amnesty meeting last night, where Kolbassia Haossou of Survivors Speak Out talked to us on behalf of his network of torture survivors and Freedom From Torture (Was: The Medical Foundation For The Care Of Victims Of Torture, but it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue). I asked him what seemed to me the obvious question: Does the therapy work? Are you free from torture now? He said no. He said if there were a delete button for the brain, he'd be the first to use it, but there isn't. You learn to live with it, but the place where you were, the things that were done; it's always there, and a chance association can put you back there in a flash. When you've been tortured you can't trust another human being, you can't love anyone, least of all yourself; whenever someone approaches you, you are sure they mean to harm you. . . Speaking for Freedom for Torture, he said, is the way I tell myself they didn't win. They did not silence me.

We live in torture world, I thought. As long as torture itself is endemic (which it is), then we all live with it, and acceptance of torture is in everything we do, everything we accept. We have all lost our ability to trust, lost our belief in each other, lost the ability to do anything but keep our heads down and ask no questions. We live in fear, that's what's killing our humanity. What is the antidote to this poison? And I thought of that movie NO!, and the laughing, dancing, absurd campaign of defiance.

Whatever anyone says, whatever Bigelow would have you believe, whatever the CIA and the UK intelligence services. . . er, well, they'd just rather you didn't think about the subject, actually, but anyway, whatever anyone says, torture is not about extracting information, it's about instilling fear. It's about showing who is Master. In Chad, everybody knows what's going on, same as they did in Chile, and everybody (or nearly everybody) keeps quiet, looks the other way, tries not to breathe too loud, never raises their eyes. The next time, it could be you. You could be taken off to the torture camp. Or your dad, your mother, your sisters, your brothers. And what if they suffer because you spoke out? So we don't speak out.

But here in the UK, tainted but not actually in danger of our lives, here's some clictivism:The reconvened Arms Trade Treaty negotiations are due to begin on 18th March. Control Arms is asking you to join in a Thunderclap action.


Drabblecast is running a month of Women and Aliens stories, one of which will be an abridged version (very nice job, by Nickyt Drayden) of my "The Universe of Things", but don't let that put you off, starts next week, check it out.

& many thanks to Ant at SF Book Reviews for his review of The Last Days Of Ranganar (aka Divine Endurance, Flowerdust edition). I'm thrilled, never thought it would get a review.


Update on the Seven Dials Elm. It's still standing, still defended but still condemned. Will Brighton & Hove's "Green" Council dare to chop down a tree that's been trending on twitter? I hope not. I hope they find some way to climb down, and the latest from the Argus sounds positive, but who knows?

Btw, ENO Traviata: I don't think the eccentricities of the production added anything at all, and the chair and a curtain setting just looked bone-idle lazy. Bizarrely, however, the music was wonderful. Corinne Winters was just amazing, electrifying, musically and emotionally, (everybody else had been forbidden to act, but even so, she was ace.)

Looking Forward To

The comet, I mean Pan-Starrs
But I bet we don't see it. Those comets, they're elusive creatures, the only one that's been any good in my life time was Hale-Bop (sp?) in 1997, which we saw when we were in Poland for Easter. That was a cracker! & what evil does the pair due to visit this year portend, I wonder. I suppose we've room for a few more.

Keynote picture is a cheat, it's the bed of sweet violets by the bus stop outside the Downs Hotel, at the Rottingdean crossroad, and meant to represent International Women's Day colours, but it's just a stand in. Our own violets are too shy.

Seven Dials Elm

Thursday 7th March, rain earlier, clearing skies at the moment.

A local scandal prompts this unscheduled post, from (sadly) someone who may soon be an ex-Brighton&Hove Green supporter... Read about it here:

And sign the petition, here, please:

There's a multiple-entry junction on a hilltop in Brighton, known as Seven Dials. Planned improvements now turn out to include felling a 100 year old healthy elm tree: and not only 100 years old and healthy, which makes it a national treasure to start with (Brighton & Hove is the last stronghold of the English Elm in the world), but even a Wheatley elm, which is even more significant. Why does the tree have to be felled? There are fears, apparently that it might reduce visibility at a pedestrian crossing. Good grief, Green Councillors. What kind of an excuse is that? Why don't you just come out and say "We like cutting trees down! We're doing it for fun!"

Why did nobody protest until the tree fellers actually arrived on Monday? Well, the main problem was, according to reliable witnesses, that our Green Council put forward their plans, in all the public consultations, without mentioning the trivial matter of cutting down this tree. So the protest was too little, too late...

So now, it's crunch time. Greens, you are in trouble. Have some sense! If you really, genuinely do not give a damn about the tree, and all that felling it implies, think about the cost to yourselves. This is an insane thing to do, under that "GREEN" banner. You cannot afford to play the fool with your support in this city, or nationally. Think again! Ignore the fact that the people who have climbed the tree to protect it look untidy, and that you don't want to encourage that kind of activism. Don't fell the tree. If there really is a problem, then redesign your crossing. Please.

keynote picture courtesy of the Brighton Argus.

Sustainable Palm Oil? No Thanks!

Wednesday 6th March, a calm day, thin quilting of grey cloud over the whole sky, balmy temperature after weeks of that icy east wind. My sky-blue crocuses have joined the gold ones, in a fine display, and there are a few sweet violets hiding by the wall. Not so much bird action in the garden this week, or maybe I've spent less time staring out of the window? No spawn action as yet, but it's due soon. Today for the first time I encountered a fine young frog sitting on the rim of the little pool. Didn't look much like a male or female in reproductive trim however.

Sustainable Palm Oil? It depends when you start measuring. The plantation should be easy to sustain, it's such a simple monoculture, but the rainforest that was there before will not be coming back, nor will the orang-utans. I've been working on my Palm Oil dependency for a while, concern triggered by a lasting attachment to the living world of Malaysia and Indonesia, finally ran up against the wall when I looked for Palm Oil free bar soap. It should be easy, shouldn't it? Ethical Products are all over the place. Does The Body Shop have a palm oil free product? No. Faith In Nature? No. Our neighbourhood artisan soapmakers, Bomb Cosmetics of Bournemouth No. Now, if you live in Australia or New Zealand, and you feel like ditching Palm Oil from your bathroom, you're fine. They've seen the damage, I suppose. Any amount of suppliers. What's the ethical consumer in the UK to do? Accept it just can't be done? Not necessarily. The highly visible and popular ethical brand Lush cosmetics has gone completely palm-oil free. So why don't the others? Could hazard a guess, but anyway, here's a couple of links for the curious:

I think the "Sustainable" Palm Oil scam is a scam, about the same level of trustworthy as the "Farm Assured" or (worse) "100%British" label, on supermarket meat. Can't argue with the argument that it's better than nothing, but I happen to want better than that. Sadly, I don't like Lush. When I walk into their very colourful shops I immediately taste the product, it's in my mouth. Not a good feeling. So it's back to Oliva (the only palm oil free soap I could find on the shelves in our local ethical giant Infinity Foods) until further notice.


Two (South) Korean movies in the last week. My son Gabriel tells me the Korean domestic movie industry is huge, and their mainstays are sugary family sagas and comedies; which is a relief to know. Both the ones I saw, however, were the usual thing, savagely violent, bizarre tales about tragically dysfunctional characters. The first was Breathless; Yang Ik-june, one of my movies-recorded-off-the-tv. A small-time gangster, actually debt collector, who dispenses with the mean phone calls and simply comes round and beats the living sh*t out of the unfortunate defaulters (which seems to work!), his horribly dysfunctional family past, and his unlikely friendship with a young girl, who comes from exactly the same background, who pretends she's bourgeois when she meets him, just to give herself a break. Wonderfully acted, intensely engaging, poetic but somewhat grim to look at. The other one was Stoker. I wouldn't say don't go to see Stoker, I definitely would not say it's a waste of your money, it's very stylish, as hackneyed American gothic goes, but if you're expecting a hip, exciting remake of Shadow Of A Doubt you're going to be disappointed, and if you know Park Chan-wook's work from Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance prepare to be underwhelmed. Engagement with the characters is set at zero, displays of emotion completely absent. Oh, wait. The bad guy, Matthew Goode channeling David Byrne in his Psychokiller suit, does about three different weird smirks!


Otter Country, Miriam Darlington. Lovely, engrossing. I bought this for Peter for his birthday. (Actually I ended up showering him with books, as I was ordering them off the internet to start with, and got scared when the first choices didn't turn up for a while). It's all about otters, Wales and England, and Scotland too of course. I cannot tell a lie, there's a lot of plashing going on here (very few voles, sadly),but also plenty of cold feet. It's great. Nature writing is allowed to be lyrical, and you just can't beat otters. I wouldn't be surprised if this ends up a bestseller.

Looking forward to reading Tubes, next. Which is the book that was slow to arrive. I assumed, given the writer's Wired credentials, that this would be gonzo journalism. Apparently it isn't, but still (or therefore) is highly reccommended.

The Firecrests

Tuesday 26th February, cold and grey, a raw, damp cold; the faint white disc of the sun appearing in glimpses where the cloud has worn into holes. A rich time for birds in the gardens, in variety: the blackbirds, starlings goldfinches,bluetits and the robins as always, but last week, when the sun came out, I saw the firecrests picking through the branches of last years buddleia for insects, on Sunday there was a greenfinch in the sycamore, and yesterday, the wrens and a pair of blackcaps (separately), and a young thrush on Val and Nicky's new raised bed, picking up little lumps of chalk, flinging them around and smacking them down, for all the world as if she had heard of these things called snails that live in rocks and are tasty, and she was just having a go... Not so good for numbers, there used to be a flock of greenfinches frequenting that sycamore, until greenfinches got that disease, and a flock of goldfinches came after them, now I never see more than five birds. Anyway, nice to see the firecrests, they are very pretty, and very confiding, apparently: not fearful of humans.

Finished a draft of Old Venus yesterday, still got to review it and fire it off. Wow what a time that took, and how much intriguing internet "scholarship" I pursued. With the consequence that I had to feature Venus as the evening star, although other alignments might, on the face of it, have made more sense. Dawn is not a time for lovers. It's pretty but too cold, and speaks of partings.
But it's okay. The orbits are so complicated, you can explain anything.


Or having watched, a surprisingly large sample of Oscar hopefuls; whereas years ago, an Oscar nomination or even rumour of same was a surefire indication that I hadn't seen the picture and didn't want to. Not sure what that implies. Anyway, besides admiring Amour from a polite distance, and absolutely loving A Royal Affair, I strongly reccommend NO. I loved this movie, so tough, so brave and cheerful, a real breath of fresh air, also loved the ars gratia artis, period production values. It really cheered me up, and maybe its not quite the ensemble piece it could have been but Gail Garcia Bernal is terrific. Go and see it! You'll never pronounce Pinochet the same way again.

Also The Painted Veil, one of my recorded-off-the-tv-guide movies, an unexpected pleasure, fine acting, shot in China and very beautiful to look at with a haunting score. Must now read some Somerset Maugham, eg The Moon And Sixpence, which Gabriel bought from the pop-up Christmas tree shop and has left here. Though I suspect the sensibility will be different.

Schadenfreude watch

Very high Schadenfreude count going on at the moment. The Pope, the Cardinal, the Lib-Dems; the Chancellor of the Exchequer (I love it that he's writing exclusively for The Sun); the interest rate. Very sad thing about this schadenfreude thing though: the very people you most deeply enjoy seeing take a p**tfall, are often taking you down with them. Ever noticed that?


The "Justice and Security" Bill (Secret Courts) They're going to carry on with this.

The Draft Communications Data Bill (government oversight of internet and email). Looks like this one is going to happen too, I'm afraid. Very mildly diluted by our protests.

And if you live in the UK and you want to preserve at least what's left of the NHS, please, please get your MP to sign this Early Day Motion before 1st April

I can barely see the keys, so Cavafy feature another time.

The Black Snake

Saturday 9th February. Cold and grey. Mouse ice, cat ice, mouse ice again on the ponds this week, but the native daffodils are in bud, far more buds than there were last year, also five crocuses in bloom, two gold, two mauve, one creamy, and you little know what a triumph that represents. Finally! I have beaten the squirrels! (I will tell you how, if you do not know, on request). I feel almost as proud as when I beat the twentyfive letter sort minigame.

Post-WWII Epigenetics

A glimmer of good news for the bees since I last wrote, and a glimmer of good news for fish stocks, with the MEP vote on the discarding of "bycatch". So little, so late. . . But never say die, nobody expected England to survive through the summer of nineteen forty, either.... If we are marked for life by the stresses our parents suffered and the joys that buoyed them up, as the science now seems to say, then my particular cadre, (whose parents fought the war against fascism, and then founded a socialist utopia on the rebound), was born infected with the belief that unlikely victories can be won, if you can just tough it out long enough, and against the worst of odds.

Which cuts both ways, of course... so here's the radioactive waste dump in Eskdale, thrown out once, possibly coming round again, championed (and why wouldn't he?) by Sellafield's top spokesperson. Were the councillors intimidated by this chilling email someone "accidentally had sight of"? Dirty tricks afoot? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe a local activist swung it, using the 38degrees template by the dastardly application of people power. Who can tell?

I wish it was not so, but our government, and all supporters of the nuclear industry, need to face facts. Nuclear power is not the solution, not in its present form. WE NEED TO USE LESS ENERGY. Go away, and come back when you know how to decommission one of your dragons. And when you're ready to put a fair, honest price on the energy they produce. Oh, and you also have to know how to avoid that unfortunate association with Weapons of Mass Destuction. Good luck.

Watching: Mainly movies recorded off the tv guide, which sometimes means great classic, but often means recent movies that didn't get us out of the house... An unlikely double bill of Contagion and Super 8 one night. I preferred Contagion. Thought Super 8 was derivative beyond absurdity. What a suck-up! I suppose if by any chance you haven't seen ET, it's a cute story. And Silent Witness is back! As preposterous as ever, if lacking the dashing Harry. Just leave out the trips to Afghanistan, please. It's embarrasing. Warzone chic is beneath you guys. Stick with with the Anthrax and the plutonium. You know it makes sense.

Looking Forward To La Traviata at the ENO. Actually, Peter bought the tickets on a very cheap deal...and then the reviews caught our attention. Hm. A Left-Wing, Brechtian, stripped down Traviata? Goodness! With no intervals and no dance numbers? Interesting! It sounds to me as if this Peter Konwitschny chap may be trying to tell the story of "the real" Marie Du Plessis, aka Alphonsine Plessis, rather than the story in the Dumas novel etc, a strange idea (I wonder if she'd thank him?). I wonder how my favourite track Di Provenza will survive, when the kindly old gent singing that golden lullaby is recast as a. . . Well, never mind. Not to give the game away, no spoilers here. If you like Grand Opera, you have to like crazy leftfield productions too & the music is apparently immaculate and wonderful.

The keynote picture is a Black Snake, of course, courtesy of monyetbesi blogspot. Apparently, the year of the Black Snake is not as bad as it sounds, which is fortunate, isn't it?

Wet Play

Friday 1st February. Chilly, and it's raining again. My cats, aged twelve and seven this year, have made this the winter of becoming indoor pets. Ginger, my older cat, has long been of the opinion that cold weather, snow and rain are for the birds, which I applaud because I like the birds, but now Milo, junior cat, has joined her in this unilateral decision. Even cats can't sleep all the time, so they tear around the house beating each other up, or else (Ginger), climb up the back of my chair, claw my shoulders, try to climb onto my head and lick my hair as I type; (Milo) they leap. He can leap quite high, and he lands quite hard, he isn't a small cat. He killed my last monitor.

Anyway, it's wet play again today, and so far I have: mended the birdfeeder that got blown down from the elm tree and restored it (via stepladder and new twine) to its branch; done some housework including a little wood-chopping in the rain; practiced piano, liking my Hadyn very much, getting frustrated with the Bach Prelude; done my greek homework; discovered that Amazon Kindle has developed a new wrinkle: in their "new sales territories" (doesn't that sound imperial!) Brazil, Japan and India, you can only get 35 percent Royalties tops, whether you have a US Tax ID or not; unless you make your books exclusive to Kindle by enrolling in KDP Select. I will hold up my hand and confess I don't get KDP Select. Maybe if I was an Indie writer I'd know. There's a huge "global fund" they're always talking about, but none of it has ever come my way or likely too... It's good for the free days, that's the only use I've found for it.

And cast a cold eye on the BBC News Headlines: In The Gambia Friday is to join the weekend club, is this the shape of things to come? Good idea, on the face of it. Four day week makes sense economically, and makes sense of the actual situation; until of course the Jedi Knights become huge, and declare that their Sabbath is a Tuesday... And today is Hejabi Day, when non-Muslim women are encouraged to take the veil. "My beauty" says (I nearly wrote simpers, but I controlled myself) the non-Muslim young lady allowing her photo to be displayed to the world "Is for my family and my partner, that's what the hejab is saying". For God's sake, kid, listen to yourself*, and you need a burqa, anyway, if that's the way you feel. Will I adopt the hejab? I covered my head in Morocco only 2 years ago, so for politeness abroad; yes. In the UK, never. I am not a woman, I am a citizen and a human being. My hair, chin and the back of my neck are as decent as anybody else's. Would I refuse under torture, or to save my son's life, say? I'll think about it... Do I understand the appeal of this gesture? Certainly I do. There's a war on. The things one keeps hearing! Appeasement is tempting.

The light has changed, the blue tits and the goldfinches already seem to be courting (ie scrapping and scampering over the scaffolding that has taken root at the back of our house; and flirting their wings at each other). And tomorrow it will be bright sunshine. Or heavy snow. Could go either way, apparently, according to our oracles. What does sun AND snow on Candlemas mean?

So, finally, I return to Old Venus.

*a comparison has been censored for being in poor taste. It involved yellow stars as a tasteful addition to outer clothing.

More Free Days for Divine Endurance Flowerdust Edition

Friday 18th January, and it's snowing outside my window, looking very pretty at the moment, but down here in Brighton the snow is not set to persist, alas.

More free days for "The Last Days of Ranganar", a reworking of Divine Endurance and its "midquel", Flowerdust, into a single narrative. You can download the ebook for free from amazon next week, 22nd-24th January, & then 2nd-4th February And that's the lot. I won't be enrolling Escape Plans (my next epub) in KDP Select. Unlike the above the epub Escape Plans will be the same as the print version, only with the lightest editing, and the print book is readily available, for modest sums; or you can buy it from me any time you like, and the money goes to an operation, originally a spin-off from Anmesty International Medical Division, that looks out for victims of torture, and helps them recover.

Spent the entire day yesterday converting EP scans to a word docx, and spraying my citrus trees with Vitax oil wash, to combat scale insect infestation (a tip from the Australians, which I embraced as more helpful than the RHS advice: ie to the effect that scale is ineradicable once established).

On mature reflection, fish oil tree spray probably should not be used indoors.