Tuesday, November 5. 2013
Tuesday 5th November, rainy morning, raw grey afternoon. Today I've felt cold in the house first time this season, despite warm jumper and a shawl. But it's not time to start using the central heating. Not while outdoor temperatures are still struggling to get below 15 degrees. Not green, however, but gold november and gold hallow'een in York, from the showers of orange gold and yellow gold leaves that rushed around, covering the walk by the Ouse as we strode up and down. Which looks likely to be drowned deep a couple of times at least: this is going to be one of those mild and wet, wet, wet global warming winters, on the signs so far. It rained on us a lot; not a problem, as it led to spending a v pleasant session on Friday afternoon in the Guido Fawkes, pub where Guy Fawkes was born, 1570 (perhaps building was not a pub at the time), watching the wet world go by
York, ah, one of the Lonely Planet three top global destinations! I don't know how that came about, it seems bizarre to me, even though of course this country is a first class treasure, but it's certainly a fine place to visit for the feast of the dead and the death of the old year, the old town all en dark and scary (if you're afraid of chocolate pumpkins) fete, the costumed ghost walk touts prowling, and then for All Saints, a magical Open Night in the Minster, where we joined the throng lining up to add candles to the spiral of lights in the Chapter House. We stayed there for a long time, in one of the stone mediaeval bays under the weird carvings, and I suppose I should have been thinking of my dead, of whom there are getting to be quite a few, but I didn't, just sat and gazed at the lights in the darkness, the faces, wishing it would never end.
Anyway, go to York next Hallow'een, and you won't be disappointed. Not if you book early, that is.
Last week I sentenced myself to an Alice week, meaning I had to watch all the movies I believed I was dying to see, and had recorded off the tv guide, or else chuck them:
I watched this one, but I didn't really like it. Fiction filmed in documentary style, in this case turned out to mean the drama is as opaque as if you were watching strangers & never finding out what's really going on. Set on the world heritage Banco Chinchorro coral reef, but the reef is only an extra, all anyone did about it was catch fish to eat and lobsters to chop the tails off and sell. The little boy was okay, and so was Blanquita the cattle egret, but I got to quite dislike the pretty-looking free spirit daddy.
Bamako is the capital of Mali. This is a brilliant movie, about Africa putting the post-colonial exploiters on trial. Seek it out. The music is excellent too. The bad thing about watching it was knowing what has happened to this city and to Mali, since 2006.
Mahanagar The Big City. Set in Calcutta, in the fifties. Not the best Satyajit Ray movie I've seen, but pretty good, beautiful to look at and Madhabi Mukherjee is just amazing. The hopes and dreams of India, of a man and a woman, walking off into the utterly daunting future, proud to be paying the price of their decent ideals: heads high and side by side. Heartbreaking final shot.
A Separation One of the best movies I've seen in a long time. Compelling naturalistic direction, compelling, low-key devastating story. The husbands don't come out of it too well, unfortunately, but there are no villains. If you are like me and kept meaning to go and see this and lazily never made it, seek it out now.
Basketcase Deleted unseen. It's no fun watching horror movies on my own, and Peter does not like them. Also, it's Hallow'een and I have captured a new collection.
Night Of The Living Dead recorded for old times sake. Deleted unseen; see above.
The keynote photo is of course the spiral of lights for the dead, in the Chapter House. The thumbnail next to this is Piano In The Rain, my favourite Dana Schulz, who's having an exhibition at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield at the moment. Nothing like the Turner at Margate, this is not wishful thinking it's a really great gallery, with of course plenty of Barbara Hepworth. I loved her sculpture galleries; and Henry Moore, but also (currently) Dana Schultz and Tissot, my top jigsaw man. In the Calder (a big cavernous brick shed they use for installations), we watched, or witnessed, a new Roger Hiorns installation (no name, far as I can tell) about a naked youth, and fire, and various oddly assorted objects. Many people didn't stick it out (awful cold in that shed) but I thought it was good, beautiful and engrossing, if not quite as stunning as the spiral, and then enlivened by Peter's having spotted a baby squirrel that had got itself stranded on a windowledge, far above the raging Calder river... The rescue operation intensified the experience no end.
We left while this impromptu work was still in progress, but to all who took part, it was great, and I hope the squirrel came out of it okay.
Rhubarb? I think it isn't the season.
Happy New Year!
Tuesday, October 15. 2013
Tuesday October 15th, clear and chilly morning, bright sun and warm air now. Saturday the 12th we went foraging, over to Hurstmonceux, but we were too early. Beautiful weather, the trees just turning, hedges full of red rose hips and holly berries, and plenty of conkers, but only a pocket full of chestnuts and no funghi to mention, except two undersized field mushrooms, which we carried around pour encourager les autres, and some raggy little old fairy ring mushrooms that we left in peace. So we had lunch at the Bulls Head, Boreham Street, one of the nicest pubs we know, very pleasant drop of Harvey's Bitter you get there, and wandered onward, heading for a beautiful sunset, great sweeping brushstrokes of warm pink across that deep clear blue you only see in autumn skies, me just vaguely looking out for those parasols we usually find somewhere around here. It's almost exactly a year since the news of ash dieback in the UK broke, so I was looking at the ash trees (of which there are plenty around Boreham), and seeing them not withered and blighted, not yet*, but all smothered in bunches of keys and some just turning from green to lemony. . .& then I saw a white ovoid in a clover field, and decided it must be a mushroom. Far too big, says Peter, but something in my ancient little brain said different, so I went haring over there, and stumbled on a monstrous fairy ring of giant puffballs. I've never seen even one giant puffball, except in pictures. They are very strange. Unbelievably huge, pure white lumps the consistency of beancurd with a kid leather skin, and one of them (the one I had spotted from far away) well young enough to eat. As big as my head? Nah, twice that! Like having a big fat tofu ham in the fridge. Enough for a week at least!
Saturday: sliced giant puffball on toast, fried in butter and garlic (very good)
Sunday: puffball curry with chapatis and dahl (surprisingly excellent)
Monday: Puffball and celery soup, with sherry and Worcester sauce (dreadful. Slime flavoured with worcester sauce and had to be replaced with an internet recipe for puffball, corn kernel, onion and milk broth.)
Tuesday: Chinese vegetables, puffball and rice
Wednesday: creamed puffball and pasta
Actually, I'll cook the last of it tonight. Wednesday isn't going to happen, owing to me having omitted to cut off the growing point, where the fruit connects to the mycelium. . . so our giant puffball went on growing up, and when the spore mass is mature, it's inedible. I knew that, but forgot in my astonishment.
Have posted off my written objection to the "exploratory drilling" at Wisborough Green, which is a weight off my mind. I intend to post it on Gwynethann as well, so you can read it if you want to, although it's pretty boring really. (and here's the link) I also intend to add a short snappy one to the growing number on the WSCC site. Nobody is going to be able to say it happened because we did nothing, in our tiny patch.
On the other hand, here's a site to watch, for a reality check on our global chances:
And meanwhile, from the Brighton Independent: Caroline Lucas, my MP, and in my humble opinion the best MP in the UK, has decided to plead not guilty and go to trial, over her alleged public order offences at the Balcombe drilling site protest. I am very proud of her, and when the trial comes up, I intend to be there.
Not found anything to replace Breaking Bad yet. Blacklist is just feeble. Last night, when we eventually convened for some tv leisure, we watched part of The Mummy Returns (which never tires) and Avengers Assemble, on Gabriel's recommendation. A supersized, fat and sugar feast of silliness, but not a patch on the former entertainment.
The keynote picture is the giant puffball in our fridge of course. *I ducked the ash dieback story this morning, wondering what the reporting was like, a year ago, and was it really so doomladen? Yes, it was, is the answer. Ash dieback will spread at a rate of 20 miles a year, and nearly every ash tree in the UK will be infected in a decade... It could still be true, but maybe, possibly, it won't be quite that fast, or so devastating?
Wednesday, October 2. 2013
Wednesday 2nd October, grey skies, clammy air. Rain in the night, but it didn't change anything. Spider season in the garden has come and gone since I last added anything to this blog, and far too much of the time between has been spent reading the documents supporting Energie Celtique's application to drill for oil and/or gas, at a site between Wisborough Green and Kirdford, Chichester district, West Sussex, deep in that "intimate and secluded" landscape, (I'm quoting from the ES) that still retains (miraculously! ed) its mediaeval character. There's 1000 pages of the stuff. The ancient headland church at Wisborough Green is the haunted location I chose for my "Tom and Em" story The Flame Is Roses The Smoke Is Briars. The Sussex Wildlife Trust has a reserve adjoining the site, frequented by all sorts of bats, including the rare species our present regime mysteriously insists that it protects to the point of reverent worship (cf great crested newts: they're obsessed with great crested newts, they love to catch them and carry them around in jars, like rapacious small children of fifty years ago). SWT wasn't consulted, of course. They're asking all their members to object, and of course many of us will, but the process is a mean joke. If we so much as hint at the term "fracking", our objections will be tossed. If we say, exploration? Well, what are they exploring for, if they don't mean to exploit?, our objections will be tossed. If we say, we know what outcome is planned. We've read the letter to the shareholders, and it's all about tasty unconventional energy reserves, do you think we don't know what unconventional means?... Do you think we don't know how many wells they'll need? our objections will be tossed.
Sometimes I wonder, what could be the Invasion of Poland, the game changer, in the preamble to this war against the worst threat our civilisation has ever faced? And I can't think. I just can't think.
Not many people realise this, but that dust, the eutrophic nitrogen in all the heavy goods vehicle emissions just duing the 3 years of this "exploration" license, will be enough to destroy a lot of the "value" of these choice "landscape receptors": and I mean permanently.
& that's only one of the threads I'm involved in. I'm drowning in hopeless activism here. I really must get a grip on this.
& so, goodbye Breaking Bad. On Friday night we took a break, and another on Saturday: then realised we weren't going to make it without a huge effort, and it was worth it. 3 episodes on Sunday, and a race to the finish on Monday, late. There's times when I've grown impatient, and many times I've grumbled that the two female characters had very little to do except wander vaguely about being witless (I'm not counting the Wicked Witch of the East with her iconic red soles; or that zero-hours contracted baby), but even Marie was a huge improvement on the usual sopranos and madmen collusive and enabling pneumatic dolls. The melodrama of the last stretch was peerless. Pantomime elements in the mopping up of secondaries fine with me. I like a fictioneer who isn't afraid of pantomime. Happy ending for the monster of evil, reunited with his true love, also okay with me. It was neat.
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice; for Vector. Very interesting! All I'm going to say about that for the moment.
A change in the weather.
Keynote picture is my gentian sino ornata, that I bought to cheer myself up. This plant will have to live in a pot when it moves to the garden, as it hates chalk, yes, I know that. Couldn't help myself. Bright blue October sky...Memo, must visit Sheffield Park this month.
Thursday, September 19. 2013
How ironic that Nick Clegg decided to come out in favour of Nuclear Power (with a slightly muted side order on how much he loves fracking), the same weekend as we learned that Cumbria is again to be considered as the site for a massive nuclear waste store. How can this be, when the proposal was dismissed, on geological and a slew of other grounds, just eight months ago? Simples! Our government (cf horizontal drilling) is going to change the rules. And go on changing the rules, for as long as it takes, I presume. If you're interested, there's a comprehensive round-up of why the proposal keeps getting thrown out here:
But it's a tough situation. Last winter, when I went looking, I swiftly discovered that the chief "unbiased blogger" supporting the Wasdale scheme was Sellafield's press officer in a different hat. Shock, horror? Not really, not even blameworthy, really. What's an industry to do? The waste is there, it has to go somewhere. It's not going to go away. Okay, so bury it under Sellafield, right there on the rather unattractive seaside! It looks like the elegant solution. But perhaps not, considering what's happening at the seaside at Fukushima right now... I'm not fanatically opposed to nuclear power. Really, I'm not. I'd be cautiously receptive to the idea of thorium reactors: except I'm not in favour of massive investment in a new, doom-laden fossil fuel start-up, instead of investing in the future. It's just that the industry's difficulties seem so hopelessly recalcitrant, after sixty years of trying. Can't even get rid of the government subsidies: can't even begin to stand on its own feet... Ask yourself, why is the political "Western World" so slap bang convinced that Iran is on the road to building nuclear weapons? Because the leaders of the "Western World" know fine well that as long as you have two sticks to rub together in the way of other energy sources, nuclear stinks. It's only good for one thing: Weapons Of Mass Destruction.
& I think Nick Clegg knows that as well as I do.
Gabriel was down at the weekend. Ginger and I spent some of Sunday watching him play Fall Out "America's First Choice In Post-Nuclear Simulation". Just like old times, when it used to be Counterstrike. We hunted Deathclaws at Quarry Junction, we helped a couple of young lovers to hook up, we dealt with some giant ants and turned the solar power generators back on at I forget where. It was good fun: a Final Fantasy type RPG at heart, but I think I'll stick with Zelda. Under the surfaces, nothing much has changed. I watched the background, this parched, cruelly impoverished environment that the kids take for granted. There's a strong founding father element in game creation, chunks of code that turn up over and over, appearing on your screen as wooden crates, railway sidings, rusted metal sheds; vaguely identifiable South West Seaboard US cityscapes: but that doesn't completely explain it. Why are the games so sure?, I wondered, somewhat spooked. The Apocalypse mooted in Fall Out isn't seriously "Nuclear". It could just as well have been Zombie Plague that did the damage. "Nuclear" is a convention, a shorthand. It covers a lot of things, the intractable truth about how we got where we are now. What we see ahead, and how poor in solutions we find ourselves.
Binging on Breaking Bad
I'm starting to feel as if I'm in an eating competition. Thank God these people show no sign of getting LOST, but they're spreading what they have fairly thin. Why does the product have to be so staggeringly pure, btw? I mean, right down on the street like it is? I didn't think the drug industry worked like that. I know what she's going to do with some of it, saw it coming a mile off, but why doesn't Skyler (stupid name) just burn a stack of the dirty money? Nah, don't tell me. I'm ticking off my guesses, right and wrong, as we move into the home stretch: it's something to do.
On the High Court's decision about West Sussex CC's attempt to evict the Balcombe protestors, who will now be able to maintain their presence until the current planning permission runs out on the 28th September. And vindication for the anti-fracking movement, in reports of catastrophic damage to farming, esp livestock farming, in the USA; that are now reaching UK farmers. Our water, and now our food production. Leave aside all the rest. Will this be enough? The end of the threat? I very strongly doubt it. Fernhurst, Kidford and Wisborough are up next.
Revisiting Bold As Love
Eating out last night at the Eastern Eye for Maude's birthday, conversation with the young people gave me an update on the cold equations of being in a hot, cool, but unsigned rock band. I've promised to send Charlotte and Lizze, best friends of my friend's daughter, copies of the Ax, Sage and Fiorinda portraits. Oh no, my digital copies have become corrupt. I'll have to scan from the originals again, or get it done properly for me... Hoping they might be online somewhere (nope), I turned up this gem from 2011. Nothing to do with me, I swear.
little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter...
Sadly, the graphic novel version of Bold As Love advertised by The Guardian in support of my review of Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season does not exist. What they have is just the US hardcover, with the Union Jack cover design (augh!), being sold by whoever bought the stock from the deceased Night Shade books. That's nothing to do with me, either.
I wonder how the fanbase (in so far as there is one) will take to Aoxomoxoa at forty five. If I ever publish, that is.
But what was it like in modern Greece, 2013, you'll be asking. Surely that's the real story. Protests? People coping with the Economic Crisis? Nazi gangs? Were you affected? Yes and no. We heard some sad stories. Trouble brushed by us, probably more often than we knew. & we were in a strictly cash economy all right. Nobody wanted to see a credit card. But having credit line problems is one thing: grinding poverty is another and often invisible, same as in the UK. The rich were carrying on regardless, far as we could tell.
As tourists with a hired car we were removed from the harsh underbelly of the recovery. The tourist towns were struggling, no doubt about it. The tour-buses still rolled into Delfi, but nobody in town was getting much of a taste & it was like that everywhere. As for Golden Dawn, we were keeping well away from Athens and that, I admit, was part of the plan. We, personally never had any trouble. But now, the news this week from Athens, just when I was thinking of how to frame this necessary coda: the murder of Pavlos Fissas, brave man, that's such bad news. The scenes of Far-Right vs Communist street-fighting. So eerily familiar, is this the nineteen thirties?: so close to my own fiction: such a chilling re-enactment game being played out in the real world. Can't think what more to say.
Tuesday, September 17. 2013
The Oracle at Dodona is well signposted off the Egnatia, about twenty kilometres west of Ioannina, but easy to miss close up: hidden in plain sight behind plain black railings with no signage, no billboards, only the two flags, one blue and gold, one blue and white, and a tiny brass plaque; like a dentist's. Entrance to the site of the greatest and most ancient Oracle was 1 euro. We'd set out very early, as a precaution against tourbuses, but I don't think it was necessary. We were completely alone for most of our visit, except for a single, very plump guard who never stirred from her shady seat; except to blow her whistle when we ventured too near the Do Not Cross tape around the proscenium.
The theatre was built to hold 17,000 people, which is quite a thought, considering how they'd have had to get here. It's functional again, there was a stunning production of Medea here a couple of years ago. Originally and for a long time there were no buildings. Ge, the earth mother was worshipped in the open. When Zeus (also known as Dion) moved in, Ge became known as his wife, Dione and they lived together in a sacred house, beside the old sacred enclosure. The Zeus of Dodona is known as Nias, the dweller; which I liked. It makes him sound homely, like the naiad of a stream. He dwells here in Ge's sanctuary. Later on, other shrines were built for other deities, and a council chamber for Epirote decision-making. Only the foundations remain.
The historical record of this place is obscure and confusied, but it seems that priests, male, and the "doves" female accepted written questions on strips of lead, and gave answers based on what they heard in the sound of the sacred oak's leaves, rustling in the breeze. Later on, metal cauldrons suspended on tripods were set around the oak's trunk for the breeze to shake, which probably made a more impressive noise. We listened, but we could barely hear a whisper. I don't know about Peter, but I couldn't frame a question, which was a slight problem. I'm just not in that mind set. There aren't any cauldrons, currently. In the fourth century CE, local Christians chopped down a huge ancient oak and dug out the roots, hoping for buried treasure. All they found was a big empty hole: I suppose that was some kind of answer. The tree in the courtyard of the Sacred House now was planted by one of the archaeologists on Constantin Carapanos's famous dig, about 1880. In Ioannina's archaeological museum (at the gates of a park opposite the Town Hall) you can see some of the lead strips. The questions are banal, direct, heartfelt. Should I marry? Did he steal from me? The answers, archaeologists reckon, must have been delivered orally: as there don't seem to be any replies.
In the butterfly-haunted isolation, austerity and silence of Dodoni we asked ourselves what did Delfi do right (or wrong)? Was this site too remote? Too near the border; the seers not crazy enough? We knew what to expect at the navel of the world, of course. You never hear of Dodoni: Delfi is a world-famous UNESCO celebrity. On this trip we arrived early not to escape the tourbuses (the Delfi experience in quiet loneliness would be a contradiction in terms), but to avoid the worst of the heat. It was stinky hot, the whole time we were in Sterea Ellada. You could have fried eggs on the pavement, when we were eating our supper at 11pm or so, down in Galaxidhi. Obviously, when you get here, what Dodoni did right was to be a long way from those pesky city states. There was nothing going on up in Epirus to inspire the jumble of insanely competitive erections, like a gargantuan toybox spilled by a giant child in a temper, that turned the eagle's eyrie site of the Sacred Precinct of Apollo into such an unholy mess. I couldn't stand the place (nb, I had not had my breakfast). The crowds, esp the Japanese in costume (various) and the nice friendly Greek man in the Burberry check suit with matching umbrella were by far the most interesting and engaging part of it, and I bet that's been true for a long, long time. Entrance to the precinct and the museum inclusive cost us 12 euros each; catering is private enterprise, aggressive and totally inadequate.
You were required to wash your hair in the Castilian Spring before you consulted the Pythia. Byron jumped right in. You couldn't do that now, the pool is dry (says everything about Delfi). But you can fill a bottle, from a gutter where the water runs under the fence. It's cold and good. When Alexander tried his luck, wanting to know whether he would conquer the world, the priestess refused to say anything, until he dragged her off her hallucinogenic gas-vent by the hair, at which she shrieked You are unconquerable!, and Alexander said "I have my answer." Absolutely typical Delphic utterance: she got him good, haha, as he wasn't strictly conquered, he died of typhoid. The more you look into it, the more you wonder why anybody ever paid for this service. Why not just come to Delfi and hang out in the wine shop: pick up on the information exchange less twisted out of shape and on the cheap? I suppose, actually, that's what most people did.
The Sibyl's Rock, where the Sibyl used to stand to chant her oracles, before Apollo moved in, is still there, an incongruous natural outcrop in the overturned toybox. In all the sacred places, at Dodoni, in the royal tombs of Macedon, in Dion, in Delfi, and in the Corycian Cave, high above Delfi in the Western Parnassos, we found this same message: Ge was here. Our original divinity was the earth. We read her as female, we called her mother, she gave us everything and we owed her everything. The sky-gods took over, long ago. Apollo rode into Delfi as a dolphin, and killed the sacred python. Zeus turned up one day at Dodoni, in the form of an eagle, and insisted on changing everything. Hades stole the Maiden... But she was here, and she's still here, not gone, only demoted, partially erased, co-opted; in everlasting mourning. (She's still here right now, known as the Panaghia, the All-Holy; the God-bearer, under the current regime and on much the same terms). It was a strange counterpoint, anyway, to our travels here, and to the trails I insisted on following; in these rapidly darkening times, for Greece and for the world. The sky-gods, the heroes and their brief adventures, playing against the rivers, the forests, the numinous hollow hills where spirits dwell.
The springs of Acheron was the best thing.
Monday, September 16. 2013
Another day, almost our last day in Greece, in the Sacred City of Messolonghi, Peter finally rebelled. He'd had enough of my latest wild goose chase, wanted to know why we had to stop for ten minutes, let alone spend the night, in this dump, flat as a pancake, sickly, glaring hot, unfriendly, nothing to see but a dreary great lagoon with litter bobbing at the shore; totally devoid of attractive features... I blame myself. To me it was so obvious that Messolonghi had to feature on the Roumeli tour, I'd forgotten to explain what we were doing. I'd also forgotten to give my patient companion proper warning that even I wasn't expecting to like the place, and he probably was not going to like it either. Maybe I'd been hoping that Messolonghi would beat the critics, but August is not its best month. This flat modern town is the reverse of picturesque, the downtown area is the only place on our whole trip where I felt a foreign woman should be uneasy alone, and there was a cockroach in the shower. Okay, the roach was dead, always the best kind, but even so...
Why are we here?
Philip of Macedon's blitzkreig empire didn't last long. Philip got assassinated. Alexander went off on his own astonishing go for it until you got no armies left World Domination game, and basically never came back. The generals scrapped, the chain of command was broken, democracy had died and (for all democracy's many awful faults) permanent warfare proved an inefficient substitute: Greece ceased to be a great power. Macedonian rule had a late revival under Philip V, but then he unwisely backed Carthage against Rome. Things fell apart again, and the Romans, to cut a long story short, just walked in the back door as soon as they had a free moment (168 BCE).
The Greeks had huge cultural influence as Roman citizens. They went on doing pretty well in the time we call the Dark Ages, through the collapse of the Western Empire and for hundreds of years after that; off on their own prosperous and dazzling Byzantine track. But the Byzantine empire never recovered from the debacle of the Fourth Crusade. In 1453, Byzantium (aka Constantinople aka eventually Istanbul) fell to the Ottoman Turks. Arabic, Byzantine and nascent Western European scholars had been scouring lost libraries and inacessible lamasaries for shards of the old Greek magic since the fall of Rome, and piecing the fragments together. At the time when a new world civilisation, that endures, just barely, even to the present day, was rising from those magic shards, Greece itself fell off the map, and vanished.
There'd been other revolts, over the centuries. The War of Independence (1821) was different. The Ottoman Empire was dying, rotted from within. Primed by the success of (allegedly) egalitarian, idealistic revolutions in France and in the American colonies, the world was watching. Philhellenes of many lands, thrilled at the prospect of rescuing the Cradle of Civilisation, rushed to the barricades. Delacroix painted scenes of lightly draped, glamour-model carnage. George Gordon, Lord Byron, the famous poet, who'd found good copy and had a wonderful time around here, on his Grand Tour, (as Peter & I had seen memorialised, in Ali Pasha's citadel in Ioannina), offered his services. He arrived at Messolonghi, the rebel HQ, in January 1824, extravagently equipped with weapons, money, scarlet uniforms and gold braid. He was welcomed equally extravagently and set his considerable gifts to work, trying to organise some decisive action. He did not succeed. The freedom fighters were vain, venal, and quarrelsome as a sack of cats. The weather was awful, living conditions sodden and squalid. At just turned 36 Byron was not a young man (worn out by too much fun). He caught a fever and died, within a hundred days of his arrival, on 24th April. His intervention, and his death, had considerable effect on world opinion, and in Greece he is still regarded as a national hero. In 1827 the Greeks regained their independence: some would say for the first time since Cheronaea.
But that's only half the story, because I wasn't drawn to the idea, the romance of Greece, directly. I was never in that league. It's all second hand, a bag of scraps bequeathed to me by nineteen and eighteenth century schoolboys (and their sisters, who fed on the crumbs from that table), raised on those magic shards. We're here because the spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair, because Heracles wore the intolerable shirt of flame, that human power cannot remove...; because the real hero of Marathon deserved something better than fame, Name not the clown with these... because Keats hungered for "Tempe and the vales of Arcady", places that for him, as for me, lived entirely in the imagination... Cavafy's in there too, of course. The echoes and tags a writer follows, wanting to know the story. The Romantics and their interesting times, from whence I date my formation as a writer, when the world turned upside down...
And if it hadn't, I wouldn't be here. (I mean, someone like me just would not exist.)
At Messolonghi, with Byron (I've never rated his best-selling major works, but maybe I'll give Harold and Juan another look), the trails meet.
So, anyway, we visited the Byron room in the War of Independence museum in the Town Hall: inspected the plan of the great siege-battle and admired the miniature cricket bat signed by a Notts County team; among other curious treasures. We made peace, walking in the quiet green Garden of Heroes, where the Philhellenes are buried, and found ourselves a better hotel. I think the naked young girl on Markos Botsaris's equivocal monument is meant to be Liberty? She's beautiful, anyway, and reminds me somehow of Neolithic Cycladean statuettes. If you ever visit Messolonghi, after I've talked it up so splendidly, go in Spring or Autumn. Check out the birdwatching and the mediaeval painted cave-chapels, and stay at the Liberty, opposite the Garden. It's a bit blockhouse-looking and drab, but fine indoors.
That's Dionysios riding on the panther, a mosaic from Pella, a reminder of a different Greece. We had a phrasebook, never opened it; except for me to look up words I wanted in the dictionary, and find that they weren't there. Really, English is all you need to get by. On the last drive I had a look inside, and found young British tourism of the early 21st century lovingly enshrined.
I'm very drunk, please could you get me a taxi?
Would you like to have sex?
I'm going to be sick!
So many graves. Back in Ioannina, on the nameless island in lake Pamvotida, I'd bought a "silver" pomegranate for eight euros. As you probably know, Demeter got her daughter back in the end, but Persephone, the Maiden, she who destroys the light by leaving us, has ever afterwards had to spend half the year in Hades, because she ate a handful of pomegranate seeds there. I didn't realise it at the time, but this symbol of life in death and death in life came to seem like the ideal souvenir.
Sunday, September 15. 2013
Sunday 15th September, four o' clock in the afternoon, the sky's darkening and the branches are tossing, I think the tail of that storm is finally about to arrive. Decisions, Decisions, Decisions, Am I going to return a response to the new Defra consultation on "biodiversity offsetting" (aka, the license to trash law) that can currently be found on "Citizen Space"? I believe I will. I find I'm as suspicious of this pretty-sounding term as I was the first time I heard it, and I seem to be a member of several of the groups who are very quietly being asked to give their opinion. It'll be a chore, but I think I've grasped the basics, and I know where to get help. The RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, and others are providing guidance. If you are interested in this issue, I urge you to give the consultation form a go. How can the government know that woodlands, meadows and little brown birds (whether skylarks or nightingales) have the power to vote, unless a few people take the trouble to tell them so, and keep telling them so, for as long as we can? The Medway Core Strategy link is by way of giving you a taste of the language. Consultation is open now and until November.
Yes, I know that consultations are not meant to give me a voice, they're meant to shut me up. I know that on the day before Cuadrilla was obliged to withdraw its current planning application, for horizontal drilling at Balcombe, the government launched a "consultation" aimed at getting the law that was in the extreme energy lobby's way changed. Just like that. . . But you work with what you have, not what you don't have. I'll still return that response.
Thursday, September 12. 2013
We left Guesthouse Euridiki very early on St Paraskevi's day. Goodbye to our hostess, and her quiet husband. Goodbye the cool, hushed lobby with the ranked preserves and the craft goods nobody bought; goodbye Elia's Corner. By ten thirty we'd reached Sacred Dion, at the foot of Mount Olympus. One more Macedonian city, but not an architect designed show-off from the World Domination years, like Pella: a city that just grew, the way proper cities ought, around the national shrines. A lovely, unexpected place. The ruins, mostly Graeco-Roman, first century CE, inhabit a shady wetland, hopping with bright green frogs. The deities, Demeter, Zeus, Afrodite, have been replaced (effigies of effigies) just as they were found: small, not gigantic, presiding over the dragonflies. In the museum where the originals are kept we saw portrait statues of ordinary bourgeois, men and women, neither royal nor divine (that's Rome for you), and a beautiful, remarkably well preserved "hydraulis": water-powered harmonium for public entertainments. The silent movie cinema had not survived.
They'll find a Graeco-Roman tv or a spaceship somewhere around here, one of these days. Or discover it, in a museum drawer, labelled unidentified artefact.
In the car park we reviewed our supplies. The Euridiki boiled eggs were fine, my cheese and honey had been quietly behaving themselves, but Peter's jam had escaped and been scampering about. So we dealt with that, admired the wall tile reproduction of sixteenth century holiday crowds, dancing and swimming and boating in the Vale of Tembe & then back to the road. But we had left the Egnatia, and re-entered the real world. It was hot, the traffic was drastic, the signage outrageously unreliable. No More Mr Nice Motorway! Legendary Tempe, the leaf-fringed gorge where the river Rhinios cuts a pass, celebrated for millenia by poets and scholars, that Keats dreamed of; where Ovid's Daphne lived happily ever after, having escaped from rape by turning into a shrub, was hellish. St Paraskevi, who has a magic roadside spring here, wasn't helping, but I feel that until more of the romantic crags have been razed, and the roadworks completed, this bottleneck is best avoided. Take the long way round.
Volos, the port from which Jason and the Argonauts set out, wasn't much fun either. We bought some famous loukum there, and drifted like ghosts of tourism past, unable to rest or to move on. By the time we'd beaten the interminable mini-hairpins of the ridge-backed peninsula, and struggled up and down the fancy 5km precipitous street, that is the four parishes of Zagora, searching for our guesthouse, I'd forgotten why I ever wanted to visit Greece again, never mind the Pilion (it was centaurs). Or what was supposed to be so d***ed attractive about these cutesy, disgustingly well-heeled villages with their arrogant 4x4 drivers that could turn on a perpendicular sixpence and despised anyone who faltered at the task. . . For the record, I cannot endorse the country walks, but the hospitality we found here was beyond compare, the blackberries around the stony cove at Elipsa were sweet, and the pool under the chapel headland very good for snorkelling.
30th July. At the first petrol station on the road out of Volos we stopped for a decent kafe elleniki, served by a friendly, competent mother and small boy team, and then onward, hugging the coast for safety, down to the Maliakos Gulf. Still hugging the "coast", but with silted up and reclaimed farmland on our left, we found the Thermo part of the legend without any difficulty, soon after skirting Lamia. The "Gates" (Pylae) are no more, of course. This is no longer a narrow strip of land between the cliffs and the sea. The hot springs, where the Spartans of the rearguard (according to legend), bathed and oiled themselves, preparing their bodies for death, were right there by the road, just as The Rough Guide describes. There's a fence, but the gate was open. A medicinal spa building stands near by, but it seemed, on our visit, empty and half-derelict. It was very quiet. Peter declined, he didn't want to smell of sulphur. I stripped off, I was wearing my bikini under my clothes on purpose. I'm afraid I disturbed the three or four Greek bathers (didn't look like tourists, maybe locals, bathing for their health), but I couldn't help it. The rocks in the spring were green with algae, the water hot and bubbly and definitely sulphurous, paradoxically refreshing in the midday heat.
We had slightly more difficulty tracking down the battlefield, until I realised that the Rough Guide assumed we were approaching from the south; from Athens. So we drove on, about a hundred metres, and there they were, two huge and distinctly fascist monuments (if a Latin term may be excused). The Hill of Kolonos, the burial mound that reaches to the stars*, stood across the road. There were two cars in the car park, counting ours. The services complex off in the distance didn't look to be doing much business. Boy-racers had left their aimless tracks across the salt pan at the foot of the hill. Despite the beribboned wreaths** on the monument steps, everything seemed deserted: ancient history trapped in a half-built motorway intersection. We climbed the Hill of Kolonus, paid our respects, and ate our lunch of bread and honey, cheese and boiled eggs, & 2 superb peaches, in a hollow in the spiny-oak scrub; not far from the current version of the tablet that reads Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we lie...
Here I am, I thought. Finally: in the place that has meant so much to me, for forty years or more. Go and tell the Spartans, someone.
Why so much personal meaning? It's a great story, and quite possibly the third day sacrifice of the rearguard here, actually did change the course of that particulat war: allowing the Athenians a little more time to evacuate; giving Themistocles a breathing space and a second chance at that vital naval victory. But how can I know that the good guys even won, at Salamis, after all this time? The Spartans, for instance, were absolute b*****ds when they were at home. Fascist is a polite word for the way they carried on... And the Athenians were no better than they should be. The word Thermopylae means something different to me. It has evolved. It means a poem by Cavafy, that I met when I was an undergraduate, a expatriate Greek's austere, modernist concept of heroism. The sober business of recognising a just cause and sticking to it, even if you know you can't possibly win. Even if you know (as many do forsee, as Cavafy says) that might is sure to triumph in the end.
Honor to those who in their life
Set out and guard Thermopylae.
Never wavering from duty;
just and forthright in all their actions,
though yet with mercy and compassion;
generous when rich, and when
poor, still in small measure generous,
helping again, as they can;
always speaking forth the truth,
yet without malice for the deceitful.
A higher honour indeed is due
when they foresee (as many do)
that Ephialtes will in the end appear,
and the Medes will eventually break through.
C.P.Cavafy trs Evangelos Sachperolou
The next stage was exhausting. We made a mistake, when trying to leave Thermopylae, made another mistake when trying to undo the first, and had to climb all the way up the mountains (the views over the Gulf were stupendous), on a single track road with no turning places. Worse still, when we reached the village of Karia, high up in the sky in the middle of nowhere and dead to the world, there was no way down the other side except via alarming-looking, unsurfaced, dirt tracks. So we turned and drove all the way back to the Thermopylae junction, & saw what we ought to have done at once (its often the way). The roads were good and played no tricks from then on, from Thermopylae to Regini, via Modi and Kato Tithorea. Cheronia (ancient Chaeronea) took us by surprise. It was roasting hot. We bought ice creams from a supermarket man who unpadlocked his freezer for us, and told us the antiquities were just on down the road. We ate our ices, with cold lemonade from a kiosk (best ice I've ever tasted) outside an aestivating cafe, and drove on. Here, in 338 BCE, a hundred and forty years or so after Thermopylae, the dream of the city states, that the Spartans died for, died itself, under the onslaught of Philip of Macedon's ambition (with a little help from his son). What we had come to see was hard to miss: a 6 metre tall white marble lion, raised by Alexander himself, they say, to honour the Theban Band, that army of lovers, who died here "to a man". He probably slaughtered some of them himself, personally, but I'm sure they'd still have appreciated the gesture. Blokes are like that.
Reports differ, maybe some of the lovers survived; maybe the Thebans paid for the lion, and Philip and Alexander just graciously allowed them to honour their dead. But still, lost for centuries, dug up by Ali Pasha (he couldn't get it transported to Ioannina), admired by Byron in its fallen glory, the white lion has been restored, patched together and replaced on its pedestal. It stands in the middle of a green lawn where the Theban Band are buried, surrounded by cypress trees. It's a very nice lion. We liked it a lot. "This is the end of the Philip of Macedon trail," I told Peter. "The end of what he did to Greece, anyway." And we stayed there for a while. Nobody else came by.
*The philosopher Apollonios Tyanefs (1st century CE) was once asked, which is the highest mountain in the world, and he replied: "Kolonos is the highest mountain in the world, because on this mountain law keeping and noble self-sacrifice have put up a monument, which has its base on the earth and reaches the stars".
**I didn't look too closely at the wreaths. I feared they were fresh, and sentiments expressed on those blue and white ribbons might be a little to the right of Nationalist. If you know what I mean.
Wednesday, September 11. 2013
Vergina is a single work art-show, for the present. The Royal Palace, extensive and tantalising, is closed for refurbishment. All you can see is the tombs. The museum, what a brilliant idea, has been built on site, and a Tumulus mound raised over it: so that you enter, as the funeral processions would have done, via a sloping tunnel; into darkness, glimpsing the ghostly white sunken doors of the houses of the dead.
There are just three royal tombs: the untouched one identified as Philip's, where a woman, possibly one of his wives was also buried, in an antechamber. The one called "the Prince's tomb" (possibly Alexander's son, Alexander IV, who died young), and the so-called "box-shaped grave", where the bones of a man, a woman and a newborn child were found in the plundered chamber. This is the one with the wall-painting I had come to see, a lifesized "Rape of Persephone". There's one more monument, down here in the dark, a massive thing called a Heroon, the shrine of a hero awarded divine status. Presumably Heracles, the legendary ancestor of this royal line.
Wonderful things, wonderful things , as Carter said: and though not on the same scale, more impressive to me than Tutankhamun, because this is a window into a deep past I thought I'd never see, and of a culture closer to home.
It didn't take long to walk around. Here are the famous, fabulously delicate gold wreaths, oak and myrtle. The silver and bronze vessels; the outsize bathing utensils for the funerary rites of a king. The metal parts of a king's dress armour (Philip wasn't a big man, apparently). A solid gold larnax ; funerary container, in which they found the charred fragments of a middle aged man's bones, wrapped in purple. A "queen's diadem". The tiny ivory portrait heads, recognisable as Philip and his son, from a chryselephantine dining couch. The tombs themselves, Philip's with the Doric facade, and the wonderful painted hunting scene above the door. The fascinating doll's house reconstructions: showing exactly what Manolis and his team saw, when they broke in, thirty years ago. The treasure of massive metal, jumbled anyhow; the imperishable gleam of gold.
The Rape of Persephone is a true fresco, executed swiftly on wet plaster, with great freedom and virtuoso skill. The colours seem to be intact, and used sparingly. On the eastern wall, Demeter sits on a rock, as she is described in the Mysteries of Eleusis, exhausted and desolate. To her left, there's the abduction itself. It made the hairs stand on the back of my neck. There is nothing else like this. No other greek painting of this quality and completeness has survived, and yet I've seen that attendant nymph, looking so bewildered and dumbfounded, clutching the veil. She's in the young Cézanne's energetic version of this scene. See her there, off to the left, standing in the water? But why am I amazed? Dynasties rise and fall. A story, an insight as powerful as the Persephone and Demeter myth can leap over dark ages, the smallest detail mysteriously intact.
The video presentation at the end of the tour (not that anyone was guiding us: we were very early, the hall under the tumulus was empty) is a work of art in itself: an account of Manolis and the discovery, and a meditation on the meaning of these secular icons I had just been venerating. Death and memory and forgetting are intimately linked forces. We bury the dead with honour because we love them and fear them; and then later, patiently and lovingly, we dig them up again because we need them. . .
You will find a spring on the left of the halls of Hades, and beside it a white cypress growing. Do not even go near this spring. And you will find another, from the Lake of Memory, flowing forth with cold water. In front of it are guards. You must say, 'I am the child of Gê (Earth) and of starry Ouranos (Heaven); this you yourselves also know. I am dry with thirst and am perishing. Come, give me at once cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.' And they themselves will give you to drink from the divine spring, and then thereafter you will reign with the other heroes From the Orphics, Petelia text, fourth-third century BCE
I'm not really up on Orphic mysteries, but I suppose the first spring is the waters of Lethe & of forgetting.
In the afternoon we walked around the fields, inspected the fatal theatre (all grass grown) and viewed the huge area of the Palace, closed off until at least 2017. Goats rambled, scarlet-skirted grasshoppers leapt onto us. We discussed the Pausanius story, the smoking gun and the grassy knoll and the obvious conclusion one must draw. There was a lot of handwaving at the time, about this poor disturbed young man, unjustly treated by his powerful lover; Philip's bad habit of playing his gorgeous bodyguards off against each other, etc etc. But there was CSI evidence that Pausanius had expected to get away with his crime of passion. That just doesn't make sense. Unless somebody (and there's really only one person who could have done this) had convinced him he'd survive. . . Peter spotted a wayside shrub bearing woody fruits; exactly the same little etched, ochre roundels we'd seen featuring in the funeral wreaths worn by the living, some of them found intact in 2,500 year old funeral debris. I looked it up, later. It's called the Jerusalem Thorn.
The tour buses were arriving as we left.
The next day we took a minor road trip, to ramble around the baked remains of ancient Pella, where Aristotle taught the young Alexander, and see a different range of finds, prosperous everyday luxuries, the people's treasures. Signs are that a very ambitious archaeological reconstruction was planned for this site, but it's all frozen in place now. Sparrows chatter, the shrikes lie in wait for them, blue borage flowers cluster over fallen stone. Closed for refurbishment. And then Edessa, up on the escarpment, the town with the waterfalls running through it. We had a good time there, a very nice lunch at the restaurant under the plane trees, in the sound of the roaring water. It was after dark when we got back to the guesthouse Euridiki. The dogs hurried to check us out: decided we were okay, and licked my hands. We went to Elia's Corner for a tsipouro mezzes supper(a generous tumbler of clear grape brandy, flavoured with anise at your choice, and accompanied by hearty nibbles), and watched the night-time town en fete for the eve of St Paraskevi. Very popular around here, she's depicted with her eyes on a plate (my greek teacher says) because she grants enlightenment; her name means "Friday"*. Later, I lay awake for a long time and listened to the dogs of the plain barking to each other, near and far, around and around; into the endless distance.
*Obscure footnote, I'm certain that this woman called Friday, because she was born on a Friday, (apparently a real and formidable person, even allowing for the fact she probably couldn't do magic and one hopes she didn't have to survive gruesome torture quite so often as reported); whose eyes seemed to follow us around the whole time we were in Greece, is one and the same as the Catholic church's St Lucy, who also lived in the 1st century CE, and also carries her eyes about on a plate, "about whom little is known".
Sunday, September 8. 2013
When I first planned this tour around the Roumeli, I imagined we'd use public transport: reliving the intimacy and the drama of our tour of Java and Sumatra in 1978. You have to get to know the people, and you have to speak the language, when you're stranded with a bunch of them at a houseless railway junction in black night, in the deepest, darkest Sumatran rainforest, and the scheduled bus doesn't turn up... (Don't try this today. The forest is gone, for one thing). But then I found out what had happened to the KTEL timetables, and then our beach apartment landlady told us there was no bus from our port to Loutsa. She probably had that wrong, but my nerve failed, due to internet dependence and old age. The tour became a road trip, and immediately, always a sucker for buried treasure stories, I wanted to get to Vergina, in far off Central Macedonia*, where in 1977 Manolis Andronikos, found the untouched Macedonian Tombs: Greece's Tutankhamun.
So, we set out from Loutsa and took the Egnatia Ethniki, the big new (2009) national motorway that retraces the route of the Roman Egnatia Way, from the west coast at Igoumenitsa, slashing through swathe after swathe of impenetrable mountain country, right across to the Turkish border. From Loutsa to the Oracle at Dodoni, from Dodoni to rainy Ioannina, Ali Pasha's citadel on the lake; the nameless island on Lake Pamvotida, where we did not eat the sad tank-eels; the friendly Chevalier bar inside the citadel, and the Mythalogi, where we first met tsipouro mezzes. It wasn't pretty going. Roadworks, active and abandoned, sporadic and systemic, scar the green wetland coast from end to end. The Egnatia is flanked by pans of naked red earth and raw sawn-off ends of hillsides: stepped and netted for landscaping that never happened. An immemorial tapestry of stork-haunted villages, towns and countryside destroyed, but someone else's heartbreak, not mine this time. At least after Ioannina things became spectacular, if never elegant, as we tunneled through the Pindhos Mountains in cold driving rain.
A detour southwards from the first kombos after Metsova took us to Kalambaka, where the rock pinnacle Meteora monasteries are. About five hundred years before the Fall of Constantinople, a band of wild monastics formed the notion of replicating the then-trending Pillar Living style of the Syrian Desert in this extraordinary landscape. The pioneer was apparently St Athanasius, riding on the back of an eagle. The labyrinthine Orthodox lamaseries that followed were constructed and supplied by rope and tackle. In living (tourist) memory it was still quite an adventure to get access. Today, fierce and squalid isolation is no more. There are stairways. Custodians take your money, dispense natty monochrome pareos for decency if necessary, and conduct you to the dark, livid, painted sancturaries, every niche and corner teeming with inventive means of execution. The paintings at Ayiou Nikolau Anapafsa, work of a Cretan, a contemporary of El Greco are far and away the best. The tiny 9th century painted cathedral down in the town is worth the lot of them: unless you're just here for the thrill of peering off the edge of a sheer, 100+ metre drop, and imagining you might fall. Not many people stay.Coachloads upon coachloads of devout Russians, Bulgarians, Romanians, process up the precipitous single track road, pour off their buses, climb the stairs, obsessively venerate every icon in sight, pour back onto their buses and do the same at the next lamasery along. At 3 euros a pop, this operation must be a regular goldmine.
The pinnacles are really giant boulders, heavy-shouldered smooth sea monsters, standing in the air. They look their best from the village of Kastraki at their feet; in twilight, or in starlight. You can clamber over the lower ones, which we did; or go hiking around them, but it wouldn't be much fun in July.
Next day we were back on the Egnatia. In ways it was rather horrible, the great road so empty, the mountains and forests so desolate, the sidings so ugly, no services offering intriguing pitstops, nothing to do but eat distance; demolishing a journey of weeks in an afternoon. Zoom. If a Hyundai Atos can be said to zoom... The Deer warning signs turned into Bear warning signs, the forest dissolved into bleak parched upland, we had started to lose height: fantastically endless views of the Thracian plain opening up below. We made one halt to eat Ioannina bougatsa at a scruffy wooden pagoda by a roadside spring; a corner-boys' old leather car seat for extra seating. A small, motley-attired group appeared out of nowhere in this emptiness, looking slightly sinister (bet we did too), and reminding me of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. But all they did was wash their fruit. As we came down off the mountain, approaching the unprepossessing ancient city of Veria, the Egnatia filled up at last: thundering frieght lorries from Central Asia and Russia, scary truckster driving, stinking fumes of hammered brakes. In the commercial sector we took a ring road. Crossed a glimmering great reservoir, set in green, that wasn't on the map, and suddenly we were in Vergina. A small town with a big coach park, baking in July heat: a few tavernas, a few empty empty guesthouses. It was the low season, Greece's aestivation. Vergina is a winter and spring resort. There's skiing not far away. Two and a half thousand years ago (give or take...) this was the site of the royal city of Macedon.
Aegae (goat town) was founded when the Macedonians were outsiders, no-accounts of history; dividing their second-rank favours between Athens and Sparta whichever way the battle turned, in the Peleponnesian War. Philip II,* (359 - 336 BCE), single-handedly changed all that. He spent his youth as a hostage in Thebes, the greatest military power in Greece at the time, had excellent training with the legendary Theban Band, and went home to build an army for his older brother the king. A few years later his brother was dead, the Macedonian army had been ripped to pieces by the Illyrians (western Balkan tribes), and the country was falling apart. Philip's first job was to secure his own throne, and then, by sheer prowess in the field, canny adoption of new military technology, and a remarkable series of polygamous marriage-alliances, he set about his project of World Domination. Nothing and nobody could stop him. In 338 BCE, when the Theban Band died to a man at the battle of Cheronea, way down south in the heart of the city-states, he completed his conquest of Greece. In 336 BCE, at forty six years old, he was in the process of invading Persia, and had consolidated his dreams of a pure-blood dynasty by marrying into the Macedonian nobility for a change. Then one Spring day, during the celebration of his daughter's wedding, he was attacked as he entered the theatre by a young nobleman called Pausanias, a member of his bodyguard and possibly one of his lovers, and stabbed to death.
Why did Pausanius do it? Why so publicly? We'll never know. He was put to death instantly, by close friends ofthe king's son Alexander, who, although estranged from his royal father for a while after that dynastic marriage, was standing right beside Philip when the assassin struck.
*Definitely not to be confused with the Republic of Macedonia
**NB, caveat emptor, this account is one of many, and differs in detail from others eg wikipedia
Wednesday 11th September, cooler, broken sunshine. US humanitarian missile strike on Syria holding off for the moment thank God; villagers (some of them) expressing solidarity with the anti-frackers fighting eviction from Balcombe, and the "Transparency of Lobbying Bill" under determined attack. We have bottled plums, started a litre of plum whisky (like sloe gin, only sweeter), and restored some order to the late summer debris of our garden. Sadly, there are fewer frogs at the bottom of it than there were before the rain last friday. They lost their heads and went frolicking about, and paid the price. I found Grey Frog lying in a border with one forelimb torn off, on Saturday morning. The predator/prey relationship isn't healthy, there are far too many cats: about as healthy as a fox in a chickenhouse for my amphibians As always, I just have to hope one or two mating pairs make it through.
Tuesday, September 3. 2013
Tuesday 3rd September, light cloud, light breeze: feeling cooler. Trying to encourage happy thoughts and positive energy in the world, when all I hear is bad news, I've decided to list some of my favourite things of the moment. In no particular order, so take no notice of the numbers, it's just a convention.
1. I'm loving the whole anti-fracking thing. Great work, please keep it up. Some may depend on mega-salaried goal-scorers, some on celebrities embarrassing themselves. Or kittens. Me, it's people like you who help me to get up in the morning.
Someone asked me, via twitter, what was the location under threat in the Southdowns National Park? That's Fernhurst, in Surrey. Celtique Energie "will be seeking permission some time in the next months". Wisborough Green and Kidford, in West Sussex are next in line. Given the position of the alleged bonanza-bearing shales, the sad fact is that once Cuadrilla have fracked at Balcombe (which they fully intend to do) it all goes. But never say die.
2. Loving the UK Members of Parliament for their no vote last Thursday. Don't Attack Syria sounds wrong to me. I think it should be Don't Attack Assad. Regime change doesn't work is a lesson we thought was learned. Drop Atropine not missiles, is one good idea I've seen. I'm wishing and hoping there'll be no more "Western" military interventions in the Islamic Bloc from any quarter. The intentions may be "humanitarian", the consequences are a lasting hell for the people on the ground (if they survive the shock and awe bit). Especially, if you'll excuse a partisan moment, the women.
3. The HS2 sceptics! Love you a million, guys.
Let's not be economical with the truth: not my usual bedfellows. But this gargantuan bloated vanity project really stinks. Just another funnel to concentrate wealth in the South-East, while the real rail network festers in misery and decay. Will it go ahead? Of course it will! It is Osborne's Big Idea! But thanks for trying!
4. Well, this is not a happy pet love. The ash trees. The new confirmed dieback sites I've been waiting for have started to emerge. Dorset, a spread into mature woodland from infected new planting; okay. But Derbyshire, confirmed sites with no new plantings near by, that's not good, not good at all. Metastasis has begun. Love them while you can.
5. The whistleblowers on the "Gagging Law". Second part of the Transparency of Lobbying Bill. Part 1 just ensures that lobbying will remain as non-transparent as ever. Which compared to Part 2, has to be called relatively benign. Join the people who are making a fuss, any way you can; while you still can Please.
Other news: Glad to see the TOC of Gardner Dozois and George Martin's Old Venus has been revealed, with my story in the cut. After a year or so of getting stern reminders in the post every month, I'd been missing the discipline. I enjoyed writing that one, very much. I bet we all did. Many thanks to the editors for allowing me to have such fun. And the Science Fiction Writers Round Table organised by Red Pepper magazine is online. My remarks, as usual, the most cavalier and off the cuff, although Marge Piercy isn't far behind. Which I don't mind, I'm used to my sad faults, but then they cite White Queen as the novel that fits the "progressive sf" bill, whereas I would definitely have picked Bold As Love. Ah well.
Breaking Bad.Trenchant satire on ruthless toxic capitalism? Or a fine upstanding Fifties'r'us drama about a downtrodden male who finds his macho, puts food on the family table & makes it to the top? Let the people choose! I doubt if I'd have stayed with this if it had been weekly episodes, but have to admit, it has its moments.
What Maisie Knew. Cute little girl, sad and disturbing little story (when rich parents go bad). I think a committee must have vetoed the real ending.
Loving it but feeling a bit sick. John Richardson's Picasso biography. Volume One was fascinating, and I'm looking forward to Volume Two, but Volume Three, after the Parisian Avant Garde and Jazz Age Society part of the great man's life fades out, is plain distasteful.
The stinking rich Schiffs gave a dinner for geniuses, inviting Proust, Picasso, Stravinsky and James Joyce, after a Ballets Russes first night (May 1921) "Joyce turned up late, drunk and inappropriately dressed..." Of course he did!
*I don't really like that term progressive, though I know all the young people do. Progress is progress, there aren't two kinds, a good kind and a bad kind. There's one kind, and it needs Protest to keep it honest. A LOT of protest.
Sunday, September 1. 2013
The first time we visited the Springs of Acheron, we went by way of the alleged site of a very ancient oracle of the dead. This was, allegedly, where Odysseus came to consult, on his way home: and was startled to find his former Commander In Chief, whom he'd assumed to be lolling about on his laurels in well-built Mycaenae, rich in gold, among the shades. What! are you here?... But the Gates of Hades are currently closed for refurbishment. We knew that, but we'd decided to mosey along to the Necromanteion at Mesopotamos anyway, remembering the old days when ancient sites that were "closed" for any reason or none, could often be accessed by just walking around the fence until you found the place where it gave up. Not anymore.
Tell them I came, and no one answered, I said. That I kept my word..., and we returned to the hired car muttering, it's only an old Epirote League fort with a Christian church on top of it and deep cellars. Barely two thousand and change stupid years old. Odysseus? They're kidding. That's all just a big story...
So anyway, we fed no ghosts with blood but continued to the River of Pain, which one meets in a shadowy grove, just outside a small town called Sweet (Gliki), where, leaving the Kayaking and the Pony Rides for another day, we walked into the gorge of the grey green, grey blue stream, under the eaves of the climbing forest of planes and pines; and soon into the water of pain itself (it's what everybody else was doing). My god it was cold, and yet so wonderful. The rock is white and deeply carven, it must be a hell of a place in winter when the rains come, and friable. You wonder where the springs are going to be, because this river clearly is not a baby, and then you realise they are all around you. The Acheron, which has a weird hairpin course, and a sister river Acherontas running parallel some of the way, is spring-fed all along the gorge: the waters, colder than ice, pure and sweet and teeth-numbing to drink from your hands, thundering up from its bed, shooting through fissures in the carved stone; or out of black caves (that you can't get into, the flow of water is too strong). We all walked up together, Greeks, Italians, Danes, Germans, French, in bikinis, shorts, wet suits, water-sports gear, with glorious smiles on our faces, it was just such an amazing place.
But we'd brought a bag that wasn't waterproof, not realising we'd want to swim, and had to turn back at the first deep stretch. So then we walked up the hillside from the place where you step into the water, and followed the trail to a distant mountain citadel (Zogli) until we reached the former Roman Bridge, a long way upstream; now replaced by a slab of concrete. Here we went swimming in the pools, collected butterly sightings (Southern White Admiral and Cardinals, mainly) and realised there was a magical thing we could do, but it would have to be another expedition. We didn't get to Zogli. It was way too far, and there was a cracking thunderstorm, marvellous light show. Peter is afraid of being struck by lightning, which I find very mysterious, but it goes back to his childhood. I'd just finished telling him how weird it was to fear something so unlikely when we ran into the blackened, riven tree right beside our path... Ah, well.
The second time, we were dressed in water clothes & shoes, and carrying nothing else but the key of the car in my zipped pocket. We walked straight up to the Roman Bridge, and into the river, and "canyoned" down. A modest canyoning experience, but not to be underestimated, I took the first rapids head first: didn't try that again! I was lucky to get away with a few bruises, but we soon figured out what you had to do. Rapids: they're shallow, you clamber, like a crab. Don't climb boulders, it won't help. Deep stretches: you glide, and the fearless yellow wagtails perch and stare at you from the rocks of the gorge, and the icy springs shooting from cracks and cave buffet you, fairly gently. So many! Who would have thought death had undone so many, or that they'd be so starry-eyed happy about it? There was a big Italian family group, including old men, old women, and two little girls in water-wings; my, they were game!, laughing and chattering like joyful starlings, and the strong handing each other across the rapids, forming a chain and passing the rest from hand to hand. They wanted us to join them but we preferred to watch, and cheer them on at each obstacle, and then drift after them in peace. Everyone was asking us, the way you do, when you've just crossed over I suppose, what was it like further up (we speak Europe's second language like natives, which can be useful), and where are the springs? Why, I wondered, am I being taken for Danish? Ah! it's my Katcon teeshirt. Makes perfect sense! Not many of those we met will have made it to the bridge, against the flow. But some will (the Italians, for instance. Even those two little girls.They can't have walked up into the hills in their bikinis!)
I never wanted this wonderful ride to end, but it did, & so at last to the shallows where the really big icy stream rises and joins the river, where there was one fat lady clutching an unfortunate little dog, and we returned, reluctantly to the dry land of the living. Bone cold, loss of core temperature cold, we'd been in the water an hour and a half, and it was astonishing how cold we were. We sipped tiny thimbles of greek coffee in the shadowy grove, & I looked around me and thought how strange if this was the day's harvest of the dead, and how odd that they all seemed to have died in skimpy holiday attire, but maybe that's what dying does to you.
Hours later, and after gobbling a picnic lunch to restore some carbs, I still could not believe that the air temperature was around 30 degrees, although it obviously was. The heat could not reach me.
On our first visit, on our (dry) path down from the bridge, I slipped hard on some steep skala, and scraped a nasty big slice down my shin. I hate holiday injuries, but luckily I knew what to do. I carried on to the river and walked straight into it and stood there until my bones ached. & I was fine. Not a hint of a bruise, no need for a dressing.
In the afternoon, we went kayaking in a different part of the river, down the delta to the sea, which was also pretty nice, a completely different Acheron, dark, not glaucous eau de nil; full of snags and trailing willows and wildlife. The idea was that we would get up close to the wildlife, but that part didn't quite work out, as our guides in the other kayak spoke very little English and never stopped speaking greek. Except to yell BEAVER! once (rather surprising announcement!) at which the two musk rats who'd been calmly watching our approach from the bank very swiftly took themselves off... Never mind, I love kayaking, & it was very peaceful and nice. The Penduline Tits were ace too. Their nests are really cool. (Photo from wikipedia, read all about them here)
That's a very wonderful river, and if it really flows out of Hades, it speaks well of the place.
Tuesday, August 27. 2013
Tuesday 27th August, another warm sunny afternoon & I meant to post this yesterday, but I was sidetracked, by the Transparency of Lobbying Bill ironically enough.
So now the Direct Action weekend at Balcombe slips over the horizon, my MP still waiting to be charged I presume, the only item of public interest left seems to be the huge policing bill (Kaching!) which some say should not be a burden on the public, (Sign here). & I'm left with the vivid recollection of the massive police presence, rushing on the peaceful protest crowd (the same protesters the police themselves had praised, hours before, for their gentle, admirable attitude and good behaviour), with that terrifying surge of violence they use just to get things over with, okay? ; and the equally vivid recollection of Francis Egan's hurt and puzzled expression, in pride of place on the BBC news. Mr Egan, of course, has every right to feel hurt and puzzled, from his own point of view. He paid very good money. . . (well, "good" is moot, when speaking of the wealth of cash spilled out in toxic lobbying operations, but at any rate plenty of it). . . to have this little business in West Sussex; this old-time extreme draining of the dregs of a few little wells, which now comes with such a mighty industrialisation of the countryside slipping along behind it, in short, the whole fracking bonanza, rubber-stamped and shooed in, without any problem whatsoever. . .
Never mind, Mr Egan, help was on the way. A "Green" group in Dorking, that's in Surrey, north of Sussex, the next county in the firing line btw, had already come out in favour of fracking. Transition Dorking "surprised even itself" by finding that exploration and fracking may be less damaging to the environment, on balance, than importing fossil fuels.
(I suppose it depends what you think of as "the environment". Given that global warming (hence that expression, global), is a global problem, it really doesn't matter a great deal to me whether the US/UK stops using dirty coal, and sells it to China instead. I do not call that a reduction in the use of fossil fuels. As many have pointed out, it's debatable whether fracked gas really is cleaner; or even more secure, (see here and below) but as a 'clean, interim solution' to the global warming vs global energy use crisis, it just does not make sense.
But so it will go on. Brute force, dirty tricks, stunning disregard for human misery on the part of the Industry and a greedy, shameless lobbyist culture at Westminster and in Washington, & forty years from now, someone or other will finally be allowed to admit that yes, fracking always was a really bad idea; that yes, the industry was allowed improper access to government decision-making, yes, corruption was rife, shocking lies were told... It was too late for a whole lot of people who would really rather not have died of lung cancer, when the Tobacco Industry was finally (and only partially) brought to heel. It'll be too late on a somewhat larger scale, when this profitable pustule is finally popped.
What can I tell you about Loutsa-Vrachos Beach? It's twenty, twenty-five kilometres down the wetland coast of Western Greece from Parga, site of a very ancient port (now long lost), a tiny town with tiny streets, climbing up the sides of a succession of rocky coves, sort of a hot Cornwall effect; currently the resort of choice for foreign tourists. Nice, but Loutsa, on the other hand, is a fine sand beach (which you will probably know is a rare find in Greece and the islands), but this one is three and a half kilometres long, and faces west, naturally enough. Magnificent sunsets come as standard, there's also a very good restaurant called the Argo, and snorkelling bays at either end of endless flat curve. There used to be a few patches of sun-loungers, but you can't have too much of a good thing, so now, alas, there are thousands of the charmers, in almost unbroken seried ranks, which slightly detracts from the paradisical dreamlike effect. Also, you better like House music... But I do, as long as it's drifting out at gentle, chilled sound levels, and we had a very good time here, our first stop after travelling by train and ferry, via Milan and Bari, 2 days and 2 nights.
The keynote picture is from Wikipedia. Hydraulic Fracking operation on the Marcellus Shale. Coming soon to the South Downs National Park (Fernhurst).
Monday, August 26. 2013
Monday 26th August, Bank Holiday, fine and clear, going to be a warm afternoon. Countless trips to the tip and countless roof-timber bumps on my head later, we've finished tackling the loft. What a horrible chore, in the dust and the heat and the dark up there and what a dreadful frustrating mess it was, our so-called attic book room. All different now, new bookshelves in situ, and just wait until I gild the skulls and finish the decorations, when I have recovered my health. Coff coff. What a way to spend the last days of summer, but in fact I hate the last days of summer, so I didn't mind at all being forced to stay away from Brighton Beach. Have also cut down my raggedy daisy meadow, and sliced it all up for compost.
This "Transparency of Lobbying" Bill has a very scary look, and a very sneaky title. The least of my worries is that it's designed to make sure that only the so-called "main political parties" (433,00 memebrs in total) have any access to the public. It definitely does not seem to be aimed at eg making sure people who lobby on the healthful effects of cigarette smoking have to declare that they're taking money from the Tobacco Industry. It definitely does seem to be aimed at silencing the whistleblowers, & making all forms of charitable, social and environmental campaigning criminal. If they don't know what they're doing, someone, lots of someones, should tell them. If they DO, then God help us. What's going on? Apparently you can find out here:
I've emailed Chloe Smith, on the principle that you never do nothing because you don't know everything.
As is traditional, the keynote photo is of the Hungry Ghosts Moon, last week, a very clean clear white moon it was: and links to the blog where I found the image. So now the year has turned, but still my intercalary as the new term hasn't started.
Friday, August 16. 2013
Friday 16th August, grey skies, cool air and a soft rain through the morning; warmth and light coming through now. Coincidentally, grey skies, cool air and a full-on thunderstorm met us in Ioannina, Western Greece last month, the day before this photograph was taken, which we hadn't expected. I love thunderstorms, so I didn't mind at all.
Blood on the streets of Cairo as the ill-starred revolutionary "Arab Spring" descends into Terror, in the oldest continually civilised country on Earth.
Cuadrilla announce they are 'scaling back' their prospective fracking operation at Balcombe (Fields Of Gold), in the face of determined, nationally organised, Non Violent Direct Action; and local opposition. They'll pop up again. Cuadrilla have consistently treated the local authorities at Balcombe, and the regulatory authorities concerned in the permissions they've needed, with contempt. Like the leaders of our current government, they seem convinced that the people will take anything they say as gospel, and nobody can see what they are actually doing,.
I'll be staying away from Balcombe this weekend. I fully support the protest, including acts of mass civil disobedience, as long as it remains non-violent, and yet I feel for the people of the village, (not to mention the rest of the inhabitants of this lovely place) and the stress they have to bear.
Reading Experimentalism Otherwise, Benjamin Piekut. Gabriel wanted me to read the introduction to this book (about the avant garde music movement in New York in the sixties), but when I started it I couldn't put it down. Absolutely fascinating, and I was twelve in 1964, but in a weird way, I was there. The feeling that everything had to be thrown up in the air and all hierarchies dissolved reached even the faculty at my my convent girls' school (honest, it did!). There's also an analysis of the Jazz Composers Guild & all the politics surrounding Jazz vs Free Jazz, and the Civil Rights Movement vs nascent Black Power, that's amazingly like an analysis of whatwas kicking off in science fiction, in the same exact times. I kept expecting to come across Chip Delanyor Joanna Russ, but I didn't. Just Yoko Ono, and of course Iggy Pop. Penetrating, incisive art history. Highly recommended.
Watching I saw Wadjda at the Duke Of Yorks last Tuesday. It's about a little girl who wants a bike, and her cunning plan to raise the money by winning a Q'ran recital competition at her school. It's wonderful, I loved it, you must go to see it. Haifaa Al Mansour is a genius, and the cast were all amazing. The beauty of Wadjda's recitation of the sura is heart-stopping, and so painful, knowing what we know: she has been taught by her mother, who is in the perilous position of a... no, I won't spoil it. Nice blog entry from this new (to me) woman blogger I've found, too.
Also, late last night, after I'd trounced the Wind Temple boss, a rather inexplicable Spike Lee caper movie, Inside Man, featuring several high class names doing not very much, eg Jodie Foster as some kind of uber-fixer, whose whole part consists of smiling in a very superior way; repeat ad lib. It passed the time pleasantly.
Keynote image is the serai mosque, inner citadel of Ali Pasha (Byron was here, in amazing number of costume changes, circa 1809). This is another shot of the same place, in the rain, taken from the Byzantine Museum restaurant terrace. Nice time there. Once or twice on our travels I meditated a foreign correspondent blog post, but the Wifi was just too shaky. I'm still meditating publishing an account of our tour around the Roumeli here. We had some brilliant experiences. Maybe I'll get round to it.
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