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Disaster Movie In Real Time

Tuesday 3rd July. Rain today, but nothing spectacular. The trees and houses across my valley hidden in mist, and a thick, Irish drizzle filling up the air between. I'm going through my tax receipts (which is kind of a holiday, and end of term day); while down in the depths of the house Gabriel works on the Liszt sonata, hissing and groaning happily through his teeth, as the music thunders and sighs.

Not sure what's going on with that Higgs Boson. Having read the CERN press office release, I find I cannot share the general (okay, faint and esoteric) excitement. "On Wednesday we might be able to tell you that we soon expect to have seen a glimpse of the beast..." I just wish there was some way to stop them (not the press office) calling this elusive beast "The God Particle". How about "The Gaffer Tape Particle" As in, "the particle that we can wrap around a rather battered old theory, which we are very fond of but the Universe is no longer keeping in stock, so it will go on working a while longer, and we don't have to squabble over what to buy instead..."

Don't you think, in some ways, our current times, what with the end of the rule of law, the collapse of western civilisation, the rising seas, the dying oceans, the wildfires eating great holes in the USA, the levels of fantastically unchecked wickedness in public life to make Sodom blush (nb, that's not the sexual practice preference, that's the hardcore moral depravity) have the character of the most blatantly outrageous disaster movie. Only in real time, instead of 127 minutes or so? All we lack is the Crocosaurus. And it would be here, only unfortunately it choked on a 100 tonne coagulation of plastic bottles and carrier bags out in the Pacific.

As always, I write these things, I think these things, and I hope I'm wrong. But I know this is how it happens, in slow motion, inexorably; not in two hours, but in two or three generations. I refer you to Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders, for the model case that inspired me when I was writing the Bold As Love sequence. (The Thermohaline Circulation thing, nb, turned out to be completely inadequate. The real workings of the winds and currents life-support machine we seem to have broken are much more complicated than that.)

But maybe I'm just scaremongering. I must be, mustn't I. Or we'd be on a war footing, and fossil fuels (just for a start) would be banned like poison gas... er, I mean, like poison gas used to be.

If you want to subscribe to Common Dreams, my source for many tidbits of news you won't find on the BBC, apply here.

Traffic on the live meal worms is slowing, this may be the last week or so. Tadpoles in the plasterer's tub are giving me an unusual problem, this is my best year, for numbers, but they aren't growing very fast. I have had to resort to commercial Tadpole Food. Oh, dear. It's the slippery slope.

The Storm's Tail

Monday 2nd July, grey skies, cool temperature, tossing air. No spectacular storms or floods here, no successive waves, we just seem to have become permanently lodged in the tail of the same big tropical-type storm, same conditions day after day. Is this summer as bad as 2007 was? Not yet, but I know it's colder.

Went out to see Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom last week, and liked it very much. I'm not totally sure about Wes Anderson, I found eg The Life Aquatic the wrong kind of whimsical for my taste, but this was really engaging. I think it was the two young leads who made it work, great kids, brilliantly directed. And the treasured library books that Suzy Bishop brought away with her. I can imagine doing that, at the same age, and in the same era. Does anyone remember a US children's writer called Elizabeth Enright? And her quirky stories of the Melendy children? Moonrise Kingdom kind of seemed like the Melendys, or Gone Away Lake (probably my favourite) only uncensored. Also watched the first episode of The Hollow Crown on the tv. it's not a Nordic detective serial, bit short of guns and car chases but it'll do. What a lot of blasted heaths and lonely shores! But I thought Ben Whishaw took a particularly good part, as Richard. Just the right combination of undeniable intelligence, insufferable charm, and defiant, trembling conceit. Great physical acting all round, too.

Anyway, I really wanted to post you this video appeal from Save The Children.

And this from 38 Degrees. You really should care about the government snooping plan. It unfolds. It's the private police force issue that worries me most.

The Death Of The Birds: A Winnowing

Monday 25th June, blue skies, mild breeze, cool bright and clear. Saturday we took the train to Shoreham, and walked up through Old Shoreham (an interesting place, confounding my persistent image of "Shoreham" as a derelict power station, and a big shingle bank covered in quirky houses like giant beach huts) to the nettle guarded path up to the bypass and beyond. A very grey and blustery day, but with the reward, as we climbed, of the larks, so many of them in the end (mainly invisible) that their song seemed a continuous fabric, a glorious soundscape, filling the wind-tossed air above the fields of barley. Speaking of Gove's latest bold announcement, which Nick Clegg says is a complete blindsider and His Mate Dave knew nothing about it... But who would believe Nick Clegg? They sent him to Rio, and we know what that means. So yes, probably, "O" levels and CSEs in some form are on their way back. "what's tragic," says Peter, (still partly a Maths teacher at his college) "is not even the mad and rubbish things the govt does to education, of which this is certainly one, it's the way they keep on DOING them, never giving anything a chance to bed in, never giving teachers or students a chance to figure out how to make it work..." "Mm," says Gwyneth. "All these years, it's been like, the business and govt people who wanted to be fashionable back then embraced one idea from the revolutionary years of the Sixties, the concept of Continuous Revolution; never letting people alone. A great way for managers to look busy, eh? Because it was the one thing they could understand. And they've never let go."

We walked along the "butterfly bank", downland where the complete absence of butterflies wasn't a terrible shock, due to the wind and the cold, slow season. July and August may bring them out, and where we met one vivid caterpillar creeping on the vivid purple wild thyme, which I tried to convince myself was an Adonis Blue larva, but I'm afraid it was a Burnet Moth infant, as the Adonis Blue larva is a freestyle take on the whole caterpillar idea, looks like a tiny sea-cucumber and is pretty unmistakable, besides rare. But I was thinking about the birds. We have a picture book, Birds Of Britain And Europe; dating from 1980, but even in the nineties, even ten years ago, its information was still fairly current.

Swifts: HABITAT: Almost anywhere. Feeds over water, frequent in towns and cities

not anymore

Starling: HABITAT: Virtually everywhere: a highly adaptable species

but we got the better of them! Starling population has plunged by 90%

& so it goes on. The heartfelt comment ex-farmer Alan Lloyd added (thank you Mr Lloyd) to my Prometheus Unbound entry says it all. A small suite of birds (eg wood pigeons) can survive and prosper, on intensive farming, but most of the farmland birds, ground-nesting birds, must die. Most of the urban birds must die. Most of the woodland birds must die. Even our enemies the urban Herring Gulls are less of a screaming crowd now, up on our archaic chimneypots here in the Crescent. The hungry generations did tread down the nightingale in the end.

& what remains? It was a stormy day, a bit relentless for any bird*. As we walked down the Adur, we saw one stunning Little Egret (now that's a bird practically unheard of in the UK in 1980), one oyster-catcher, a whole heap of swans, a sparrowhawk, and a big, very red dog-fox, his brush soaked and back muddy, trotting through a field, having obviously just swum the river. Heading quietly for more rabbits than you could count.

Watching: A Royal Affair. Thoroughly engrossing & thrilling, and not afraid to wear its (political) heart on its sleeve. Mikkel Boe Følsgaard took a great part as mad King Christian. & did you know, the "happy ending" is more or less true? Caroline Matilde's son Frederik DID restore the reforms his mother and her lover died for (to be fair, arguably they died, in real life as here, for being young, stupidly arrogant, and horribly careless; but that's not going to make a worse movie, is it?). Also, I really love the sound of the Danish language.

Reading: Ad Infinitum, Brian Rotman. Having problems with the Post-Modernist Prolixity we thought so fine twenty odd years ago, which now seems to have genre fantasy writer's disease (= never use one word where 500 will do!), so I keep thinking yes, yes, but get on with it. However, will persevere.

The church is St Botolph's on the Adur, which we visited and made our turning point. Saxon, more than Norman, a very quiet place. It's one of the 500 Holiest Places in the UK. Certfied, and in a book and everything. Wow. I looked up the book and found somebody on Amazon complaining that his own country's best and secretest holy places had been left out. Fer God's sake (so to speak). Rejoice, my son. Rejoice. Fame isn't everything.

And before I forget, to cheer me up, and probably you too if you read this blog, here's a really nice blog I found earlier: Jonathan Pomeroy
Specially the SwiftCam

* Except the crows, (in flocks, so rooks?)we haven't got the better of them yet. They were out in the wind, and revelling in it.

Hauling In The Other Direction

Monday 18th June, cool and breezy, sun and cloud. I heard the swifts shrilling, above the blanketing cloud at 7am, and have been watching the juvenile starlings, chalky brown birds, with pale throats & starling beaks, feasting at the live worm feeder, overseen by a glossy black speckled parent... So has Ginger, but the starlings and the bluetits don't seem to mind. She's down on the grass, she cannot climb the pole...

I used never to feed birds in our garden. We have cats! And if we didn't, the enclosed gardens of the Crescent are full of other people's. Then I read on the RSPB site that if you are so inveterately evil as to host a cat, providing food for your bird population probably reduces the success of cat predation = birds are innately vigilant when feeding. If they are just hanging out, thinking what a nice day it is, having a bit of a sing, their firewall isn't turned on, so to speak.

So, Greece is back from the brink, for now, and I have to be relieved, because exciting and cleansing as utter disasters are, it's better if they don't happen. Next, I hope la lutte continue. I hope the Left Wing doesn't flounce off in a huff... This is the job of the Opposition: to haul in the other direction, even and nearly always knowing you can't "win". We win by losing, we win by worrying the people in power... You can't stop online snooping (on the contrary "you" out there, you seem to love handing over your entire lives!) , but you say no when you get the chance. You can't stop the usual business and wealth world from ignoring the devastation caused by global warming, but you can say no, whenever you get the chance.

Giving: Anyway, here's a grim and informative bulletin from South Sudan, courtesy of Medecins Sans Frontieres

And a call for stories from Ann and Jeff Vandermeer; kindly forwarded to me by Gordon Van Gelder.

After some thought, and research, I've submitted Identifying The Object, Balinese Dancer and The Universe of Things; having felt obliged to avoid The Voyage Out (over-run by unfathomable East Asian spam); & The Fulcrum (as having been object of passionate and persistent right wing attack), and decided not to bother with those stories that might be deemed appropriate (Red Sonja And Lessingham et al) which have simply been made universally available for so-called free download by pirates. Isn't the Internet wonderful.

You are safe following the gwynethann site links. It won't bite you.

I think there was something else, but I've forgotten.

Prometheus Unbound

Tuesday 12th June, & here in Brighton it's cool to chilly under grey skies, the rain is steady and gentle. My tadpoles, both indoors and out, are showing no signs of developing legs, this is a record for mid-June. Have begun feeding the indoor ones on goldfish food, but I've never fed the outdoor ones in the big tub, they've always managed fine, and temperatures haven't been outrageously under par, so I don't know what's going on.

Sorry, one more Prometheus link, relayed to me by Peter, which I have found irrisistible.

Re: faster-than-light vs sublight speeds. You know, I'm sure the issue was just as hazy, or muddled, in the previous, or I suppose we should now say subsequent Alien movies... I think you could easily have kind of assumed the good ship Nostromo was running on petroleum based marine fuel, from the steampunky look of things. We cannot get there from here. There is an unbridgeable gulf, the science does not exist. Sixty years of spaceflight, and the most ambitious interplanetary exploration currently on the cards involves getting a small and flimsy object, that couldn't sustain Laika, on a one way trip to the orbit of Jupiter. This is not an optional feature. Sci-fi movies NEED an irrational form of transport from A to B, the way Fantasy needs dragons and/or evil magicians.

Not that this in anyway makes taking the p*** out of a self-satisfied, Big Box Office Success behemoth like Prometheus less justified or less fun.

Last night, I accidentally watched Springwatch, which I had previously dismissed as too gushy and cute to bear. Not so, not any longer. The lapwings, they are all gone. A third of the meagre breeding success in the whole of Wales knocked out in a single storm, and the same story in the wetlands of East Anglia already... Twenty years ago, when I thought I lived in a pretty damned urbanised country, those lovely birds, so beautiful, so acrobatic in flight, were everywhere. Sometimes I can't bear it. The future for the living world, here and everywhere, seems so hopeless. But I'll keep the garden soup kitchens open, and try to grow tadpoles, even so.

Clarion Call

Monday 11th June, calm and grey after many hours of heavy rain yesterday evening and late into the night. Slight eco-disaster in the tools-and-tins cupboard under the basement area steps, rainwater got in and one of the pots of live worms was standing in water. Have evacuated the survivors and rehoused them; only a few lost their lives, but the rehousing was in the feeders so that won't last.

A Clarion Call from Karen J Fowler:

"Sign-ups and pledges for this year's Clarion Write-a-thon have slowed to almost nothing. As we are increasingly dependent on this annual fundraiser, we absolutely need it to be a success. Can we get some tweets and blog action? And anything else you can think of that might help? Official dates coincide with the workshop -- June 24th to August 4th -- but we hope to have the pledges in place early so participants can concentrate on their writing goals during that period."

If you can help, please do. The experience will be fun and envigorating, and in terms of the quality and value of the Clarion experience for new science fiction writers it is such a good cause.

And good news from Cassie Hart about the sf anthology Tales For Canterbury, a benefit anthology, all profits to the NZ Red Cross Earthquake Appeal. Now the winner of the Best Collected Work Sir Julius Vogel Awards!!! Copies still available through Random Static Press

& here's a link from The Momus Report, about a podcast on female sf writers, plus subsequent discussion, relayed to you from a comment posted recently but on an earlier post of mine. Apparently the discussion was annoying. So, by all means go ahead and find out if you agree.

Is it safe?

Sunday 10th June, bitter grey skies, a sullen breeze; the next rain due later.

What have I been doing over half-term? Lots. Never a dull moment, unless you count those periods of bad weather when the skies were merely dull, rather than full of roaring gale or pounding rain. Friday 1st I watched Weekend on the tv, with Gabriel, a very sweet movie, enlivened by a contention on Gabriel's part that the city had to be London, he favoured the south west; maybe Wimbledon or somewhere as he has never been there, whereas I, also failing to recognise a city where I spent a formative six weeks on Civil Service training, long ago, maintained it could not be London, as neither the artsy-type or the ordinary-type crowd people were not speaking any form of Estuary English (Gabriel counters: there are lots of London accents, what would you know?) and there are no hills like that in Wimbledon. It's Nottingham, of course. Later that same evening, went out to see Battle Royale at the Duke's with Peter, a movie I've always wanted to see, and always missed. It's not really a lot like The Hunger Games, much more rough and ready in every respect, but there are startling points in common (eg the chirpy tv persona girl with the updates, the scrolling death toll). Was disappointed to find that contrary to legend, the collars the kids wear do not actually make their heads explode*.

Sunday Peter & I went out walking, a pub crawl around the High Weald, under grey skies and blue; through showers and calm. The wheat has certainly picked up, which is good to see, blossom still on the hawthorns, flowery meadows, shouting thrushes. A little of the Thames pageant on the telly at the second pub, a bit of bunting; at the rainiest pub, a wet dog cart with a pair of very morose skewbald big ponies (cobs?) in harness, rumoured to be offering jaunts around the lanes. A strangely empty feeling everywhere, like a supermarket during a Cup Final...

The big storm never really hit us in Sussex, but there was no question (guilty shake of head) of the planned project: prepping basement area for housepainter, by hand, with scrubbing brushes and sugar soap. No jet spray allowed, see, as we have a hosepipe ban on.

Ate out. Had haircuts. Played Zelda. Watched telly. Went to the movies some more later in the week. Liked The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists quite a lot, though not sure what the 3D added in value. I'd give it no more than four stars, as the script just didn't sparkle, somehow. But absolutely top marks for identifying and utilising to their fullest extent the three things every child is sure to know about science:

1. Charles Darwin invented Evolution (with a little piratical nudging, it seems)

2. Dodos are extinct.

3. If you mix vinegar and bicarbonate of soda YOU CAN MAKE A VOLCANO!

Also saw Prometheus and it wasn't easy, but I have found a genuinely appreciative thing to say: some of the points made in less positive amateur reivews at imdb are very funny:

(NB, please do not follow this link if you somehow manage to be fearing spoilers. Also, you may find the language used by some spluttering respondents crude and offensive; because it is. )

Not that any of the delightfully withering nitpicks and queries would have mattered a damn, if the script and characters had worked together, or the ensemble had ever looked as if they believed in the daft hokum that was happening. Sigh. Bring back The Mummy Returns, all is forgiven.

Saturday we went to Massimo's concert at St Andrew's church, and that was really good. Except I spent the interval watching fish in the pool room at The Iron Duke, as I do not play pool, and it was just too cold and nasty to go for a stroll by the sea...

It's that time of year again, the time of year when I realise once more that (like many of my fictional characters, coincidentally) I pretty much hate summer. The weather is always vicious, the pitiful attempts I made at gardening in the Spring have reached the point where hope must fail; I get hay fever from evil bee-destroying rapeseed, and there is too much stuff going on outside.

Is it safe to come out of the cinema yet? No, it is not safe. There's the Euro 12s (which I don't mind, except not all day everyday, and btw, I wonder should Angela Merkel take the national coaches aside and have a word: Let the Greeks win, okay? Don't make it obvious, but it would really help...) There's Le Tour (an old friend), and oh no, there's The Olympics.

A few times I have heard the swifts, shrilling above the clouds, a couple of times I have glimpsed a pair of them. The seagulls are all brooding now, and very noisy: sad discovery of a dead chick by our water butt recieved with calm by the houshold. "You don't even like them" was the verdict. "Put it on the compost."

The keynote picture definitely is not Brighton Beach. It's the beach at Katwijk aan Zee, back in March. Just trying to cheer myself up.

*I totally apologise if this is deemed a spoiler.

Woods Mill

Thursday 24th May, still very warm; a luminous overcast.

Tuesday evening, the first actually warm evening of the year, as the sun set like a luscious red blood-orange, we drove out to the Sussex Wildlife Trust HQ at Woods Mill, to hear the nightingales. Which we duly did, sitting on the worn grey oak bench under a thorn thicket by Nightingale Bridge, a blackbird couple scolding us for camping on their doorstep. As on previous occasions kind of wondered what the fuss is about*. Glug, flugggle gluggle, wheep wheep tuiu tuiu. Our domestic blackbirds seem much more musical, esp the one who sings at dawn, every morning, outside our house. And the one (could be the same songster?) who grandstands on the chimneypots opposite my window, at the close of day... But Woods Mill itself was in beautiful form, May blossom and chestnut flambeaux almost back to Houseman's settings this year (ie, just about to fade at the end of May), cow parsley in hazy glimmering masses all along the paths. Thrushes shouting, a small grass-snake swimming along in the stream, a hovering kestrel above the Barn Owl Meadow (where the kestrels now have a nesting box, and reared five last year). Never free from the sound of traffic, but you can't have everything. Nightingales, and a cuckoo's song, shouting away in the dusk, somewhere off in the woods, and the evening stars coming out overhead, in an extraordinary deepening golden-green sky. Such a feeling of privilege, and gratitude, what did we do to deserve this.

*We met the warden on the way out, and he told us the nightingales sing better when they do their second show, around 11.30pm, when there's no competition. We'll bear that in mind. The creatures making extraordinary noises in the big pond, snuffling and sneezing and flopping (too dark for us to see their origin) are the big carp.

Watching: Bit stuck for anything to watch, now Homeland's gone (will I watch the second series? Probably not, I can tell when a programme is getting a little LOST, know what I mean?). And Scott and Bailey is over (I could tell you who it is Rachel sees sitting by her mum in the pub, in that parting shot. But I won't as my "guesses" often turn out to be right, and then it's a spoiler, innit); and The Bridge too (Saga was a splendid invention, a woman after my own heart, but who's idea was that worthless mash-up of a plot?. Actually, I suspect it was a lot of people, all thinking they were writing separate self-contained episodes of a police procedural, but then at the last moment, some nutcase decided it was to be a single, through-composed storyline. So! What to do! Saw off the resolution part of each episode, and just ravage them, weld them all together, any which way...

But now it doesn't make sense the poor mugs of writers wail?

Nah, shut up, no problem. Life doesn't make sense, and the punters will never worry, anyhow.

Oh well, back to my jigsaw and The Great British Menu. Which has the beauty of being amazingly daft this time.

Reading Elsa Osorio, My Name Is Light, an Argentinian novel written as the personal account of one of them, about the stolen children of The Disappeared (victims of the military junta, 1976-1983). Came to this via Clea Koff's The Bone Woman, which I read and greatly admired last year, which in turn lead me back to Christopher Joyce and Eric Stove's Witnesses From The Grave, which is largely the story of Clyde Snow, and the birth of forensic anthropology, the technique for nailing the perpetrators of genocide and other "extra-judicial" massacres, he and a group of young Argentinians pretty much founded. But now, and strangely, from Osorio's angle, the political struggle all but disappears. In this world there are no ideas, words like "social justice", "communism", "police state" mean nothing. There are only sensual responses, it's a naked Gender War. Nature red in tooth and claw, women and their babies, versus men and their hierarchies of power, erotic allure versus brutal physical force. Creepy but compelling

Giving Medical Foundation For the Care Of Torture Victims. Check out what they do. You already know how much the torture victims who arrive in this country need protection

Writing News: Lynne Jamneck's excellent and very well-reviewed Lesbian themed sf anthology Periphery is now available in e-book format. Check out her blog for venues:

Also the action on the Authorlink mailing list, which is currently all about the loving and intimate, (did someone say corrupt?)links between Google and our PM, constantly in each other's pockets. Sweet.

And before I forget (again) the best fun (in English) on the Beneluxcon programme, and the best science fiction con, totally and convincingly straightfaced "scifi science" feature I've seen in a long time, was the lightsaber talk, and I was going to post about it but I didn't so here's the link:

The blossoming May tree was at Burwash, two years ago.

Can't Pay? Won't Pay! #n

Wednesday 23rd May, very warm, very clear, it's going to be a hot day. I've been waiting and looking for the swifts, even a glimpse; I saw a few last thursday, early, flying high & since then nothing. And it's not just me, I've checked the usual venues, nobody is seeing swifts, where have they gone? This morning, about 9am, I heard a shrilling, looked up and saw a strange, double-winged black butterfly shape, speeding high up above the Crescent gardens, and realised I was watching a pair of swifts, mating on the wing. What a rush, eh? They must have a nesting place nearby, are they alone?

Gabriel's Student Loan statement arrives. Whoa, look at that interest! A moment's calculation, not requiring the back of an envelope, tells one that the ex-student, First Class Honours, full scholarship for his Masters, (along with many like him, the scholars, teachers, scientists), hasn't a hope. He might, might reach the repayment threshold before he's forty, but by that time the idea of catching up and paying it off will be out of sight. He can't do it. Ever, really.

I thought tuition fees as an interest-free loan, repayable when earnings reach a threshold, was a very reasonable idea. Since all this "everybody has to go to university, it will keep them off the dole figures" lark was really the government's idea (previous governments, I mean), the government should pay for it, unless those years of study turn out to have been an investment for the student him or her self. But that's not what's happening. What's happening is a weird, blindfolded aversion therapy, which will work, in the torturous end. Young people who aren't rich will learn that they can't have Higher Education, and things will settle down, the way the Tories like it, the rich and the poor in their proper places.

My son, who probably hasn't given a thought to the concept of Compound Interest since he met it briefly in a maths class when he was twelve or something, just throws the nasty thing aside. Can't pay, won't pay. I immediately start thinking how can I possibly get the money together and stop this juggernaut? NOW! Before my child becomes a serf for life, or the government, I'm sorry I mean the Student Loan Company sells off the debt to Organised Crime... But Gabriel's alien attitude is gaining on me. They told me what the rules were, and then they changed the rules... It's a prisoner's dilemma situation. Always default? Nope, you'll lose. Always co-operate seems ideal, but it leaves the field open to any determined bad guys. Tit for tat, and its derivatives; you're onto something. Can't pay, won't pay.

Mealworms continue to go down a treat. The starlings cleared out the wooden feeder before 9, but as yet they haven't figured out how to sneak into the dome feeder, and the blue tits are doing well.

Must think of some way to feed live food to the Greeks. They were bad, but they are my neighbours. Go there and spend money, I guess. Soon as I can. It's a long trip if you don't fly. And I won't fly.

Click through the keynote image for a gallery of swift photos at the swift conservation site.


Tuesday 22nd May, sunny and breezy under clear blue skies, & much warmer, said to be reaching mid-twenties before the end of the week. Suddenly the gardens are in leaf from top to toe, the Christopher rose is in bloom, the big flowerbed is thick with columbines and foxglove spikes. Feeding mealworms could become an expensive hobby, the starlings (although national population horribly in decline) are still the voracious thugs-of-the-birdtable that they always were.

A long time ago, a year ago, in Gabriel's last year at Trinity, I thought I would write here about modern composers, find out the (literary) lowdown about the authors of the music I kept hearing about, and became excited about by contagion. The Rest Is Silence (Alex Ross) kept me enthralled for weeks. Shostakovich, Stravinsky. We were to proceed backwards, through the game-changers (Ravel, Debussy), but it never happened, though I read the biographies and listened to the music. The moment had passed. What prodded me towards Schubert? It was returning to Thomas Mann, esp The Magic Mountain, a book I started and never finished when I was an undergraduate, a story that ends in the trenches, with, for our hero, the poignant tender resignation of Der Lindenbaum (the Lied that became a folksong) running through the foul din of battle.

Trouble is, there's not much of a literary lowdown to be found. All I knew was that "he was truly great, comes straight after Beethoven, & died young" & he mainly wrote songs, also piano sonatas people thought unplayable at the time, and one very famous symphony called The Unfinished (nb I come form Manchester, was often taken to Hallé orchestra concerts when young, & Sir Charles Hallé was, I now know, one of the few, an early adopter, hugely keen on the Schubert repertoire. Or I probably wouldn't even have known that much). The more you look for Schubert's music the more riches you find, but biography is thin. He was born in Vienna, of lower-middle class parentage, just before the turn of the nineteenth century, was a child when Napoleon was at the height of his powers, lived to be adolescent and young adult in the pleasure-loving and cultured capital of a small country much diminished in world (ie European) politics, and, after the excitement of the Revolutionary Wars, in the throes of a deep repression. He had friends, they drank (a lot), made merry and made music. His mother died when he was thirteen; he would have got married when he was 19, but the law said he had to prove he could support a household and that he couldn't do. He trained as a chorister, but that career ended like the careers of most boy choristers. He trained as a primary school teacher (his father was a school-master), but that didn't work out. He made a very decent name for himself (though not much of a living) as a songwriter, on the local, domestic music scene; he tried for years to forge a career in opera, but failed to gain a foothold, as everyone was mad for Rossini, while he favoured German opera & it seems he had an unfortunately short fuse besides: and he contracted syphilis when he was 26.

All the while, music was pouring out of him. He wrote one piece, he started another... Symphonies, chamber music, song-cycles, a mass of works, great and small, a whole catalogue of challenging, innovative, beautiful and powerful music. He was arguably the best ever interpreter of the Romantic school of German philosophy, not only the passion for the sublime, but the insistence that the study of interior experience is not a frivolous indulgence, but the source of all our knowledge of the world and of ourselves, that was later, rebranded as "psychology" to shape another century of European thought. But nobody really knew. When he died he'd just begun attract attention, and the line on Schubert, for long afterwards, was "what a shame, he could have written such great music". He'd already done it.

He lived in Beethoven's shadow, in the same city, without ever (it seems) having any direct contact with the great man, who died in 1827. He saw himself as the successor of the master he revered, a figure in the socially radical model Beethoven has just invented (I am no man's servant, I am Beethoven). But it was impossible, because Schubert wasn't a virtuoso performer. Far from it, he was (far as I can tell) no more than an ordinary domestic pianist. It's hard to achieve fame, when the route to celebrity is closed. Hard for him to get a proper job in the conservativbe musical establishment either: the odds and the trends, were not in his favour. What he could do was write music, all kinds of music, but this was a trap for his career, and his reputation after death. Publishing deals were awful and the demand (as even the greatest celebrities found to their cost) was for home entertainment, shortish pieces that could be played, preferably at sight, by the average ordinary music lover (comparable level of skill, ability to load an ipod with taste, ah well). So Schubert was a local hero, prolific producer of popular stuff, who struggled in vain to get published outside Vienna, and when he died, he was the tubby little man who wrote charming songs and piano duets for the masses. Which didn't sound like much of an oeuvre.

The irony is that this passionate back-bedroom fan-boy really was Beethoven's rightful heir, Beethoven and more, things Beethoven couldn't do; and how often does that happen? If he'd been taken seriously in life, his music would undoubtedly have lived in Beethoven's shadow too, and he'd have had different frustrations. As it is, Schubert's status is a controversy that never happened. There are passionate Schubertians, and he has a secure place in the repertoire, and there it lies.

When he'd recovered from the acute phase of the disease his health was poorish, but okay, for the last five years of his life. In October 1828, when he was thirty one, he was taken ill at a dinner party. A few weeks' later he was dead. His sudden death is held to be a puzzle, but given the many forms syphilis can take, and given the horrific, grotesque long-drawn out torture it could and can inflict on the way to killing you (in the absence of antibiotics), I don't see any mystery, and you could say he got off lightly. The sublime, unbearable sadness of his late and greatest music, the intense poignancy in the happiest, is also held by some to be a puzzle, since what, in his uneventful, modest, lower-middle-class biography prepares one for such intensity? Well, I don't know. He knew his own worth (and he was dead right). He knew he'd contracted a shameful, hideous disease that was going to kill him by inches; that all his hopes were blighted, his chances of love and happiness destroyed. He "lived with death as a constant companion for five years", and came to terms with this dark angel, faithful friend, in the language of a composer of genius. What does his class background, and failure to play before the Crowned Heads of Europe have to do with it?

(The portrait at the top of this entry is the standard model. The one on the right at the bottom is a disputed sketch of Schubert at 16. See here (scroll down the comments, until you get to the informed response, which is the long one). Who can tell? I've looked at the two faces side by side, I think it could well be him).

His last sonata, in B flat (D960) is my favourite piece of music.

File beside John Keats.

The biography I read was: Schubert, John Reed, Master Musicians series; OUP; series edited by Stanley Sadie. It's really more of a Schubertian handbook, best on dates and the catalogue, and critical examples. I'm not convinced there isn't a literary biography (debunking, revisionist or otherwise), and I have my eye on one, ( but I've no idea if I'll get round to it.

Der Leiermann (linked through the keynote portrait) is sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; piano, Alfred Brendel.

A More Equal Society

Tuesday 15th May, cool morning, heavy grey skies promising more rain. Rain in the afternoon yesterday, blackbirds scrapping in the new leaves of red maple and green elm.

I find it very mysterious, the way our rulers in government have no trouble at all spotting the need to offer substantial salaries for important posts in, say, banking, because otherwise we cannot attract the good candidates, and yet completely fail to understand that this phenomenon is scale-free, and must apply equally when you're hoping to attract and retain the good candidates for nursing, for teaching; even for hospital cleaners. You have to show people you respect them, if you want them to do their best work.

Perhaps the government is living in dreams of the past, times when one could assume that nurses and teachers had vocations, not mere jobs, and their compassion and integrity could be assumed to rise above filthy lucre... Failing to note that Tories have worked very hard to destroy the more equal society that underpinned those happy assumptions.

Reminds me of the slow-of-thinking Green revolutionary rank and file in my Bold As Love books, who sawed down all the unsightly masts, and then couldn't figure out why their mobile phones didn't work anymore.

Still reading De L'Allemagne, and I can understand why this book in particular made Napoleon so mad. It's not that the the justice and peace, liberty and enlightenment agenda is so offensive, Emperors like that sort of thing, in the abstract. It's the needly bits about great servants of the people deciding to hand out the spoils to their own families; the pitiful way men of remarkable talent fall apart, morally, when they mistake their personal vanity for a value system... But how modern it all seems!

Mme de Staël, getting on the case of her own version of the twittering and facebooking generation: "The young people, having hardly left school, hurry to embrace a career of luxurious idleness, as if it were the true mark of adulthood. Young men and young women spy on each other, picking on the most minute details, not so much out of active malice, but just to have something to say, when they have nothing to think. This kind of daily spite destroys goodwill and loyalty... "

Her point is that only a real, liberal education will teach them empathy, since the book of Nature has been closed to them by modern urban life. Il faut beaucoup savoir pour bien sentir...

That Enchantress

Wednesday 9th May, another cool, still grey day, very low cloud, slightly less chilly. The swifts ought to be here, and we've glimpsed them twice, but it isn't just the weather, it's the shrinking population, finally heading for zero in my little patch. They're still around, but they don't live here any more, they won't be shrilling down Roundhill Crescent again, or diving over my garden.

Spring rituals: I realised just the other day, thinking of Houseman's poem about the wild cherries: within living memory, ie for about the last five years my best wild cherry viewing, year by year, has been along the M40 corridor, between the M25 and Oxford; where the red kites soar. At least their numbers, as the number of buzzards, is increasing; which tells a good news story about the small mammal population also. Motorways as nature reserves, likewise military installations and even airports. Anyway, to Patching Woods and the Angmering Estate to see the bluebells, this year a very beautiful one, the blue as rich as I have ever seen it, and the grey skies and cool rain seeming to make all the colours deeper and more luminous. Crowds of insect-hawking swallows and a pair of grebes on the fishing lodge by the A27, and later once, a red deer hind went darting away, but otherwise we were almost entirely alone with the birdsong. (I tried to make a movie to capture the thrushes, but it's rubbish & I won't bore you with it).

Meanwhile, France has a socialist President, Greece has ditched austerity (I think Greece should ditch the euro, always have thought that, but if the bail-out queen of Europe wants to prolong the agony and trash the eurozone, who am I to protest?) Andrew Lansley is inviting vulture "health" firms to pick over the corpse of the NHS, and Cameron and Clegg are retrenching, after a drubbing in the local council elections. How annoying it is to have the Tories say, whenever taking another lunge toward the extreme right wing, that they are serving the concerns of ordinary people. Hey, count me out! On the other hand, when it comes to reforming the house of lords, I'm sure I speak for ordinary people everywhere in the UK when I say I could not care less... (except that I assume, and I'm sure I'm correct, that any project undertaken by our lovely government has the purpose and will have the effect of a further shift towards feeding the rich, robbing the poor and the already-not-too-wildly-distant goal of open neo-fascism*). Reform them to appease the Liberal Democrats? Nonsense, they don't need appeasing. They will swallow ANYTHING, they already have. Leave the lords alone! They're a mild source of entertainment, and they occasionally annoy our ruling caste, which one can only applaud. Otherwise, in the immortal words of W S Gilbert:

The House of Peers
Throughout the war
Did Nothing In Particular
And did it very well!

& last week, a "massive attack on Avaaz" report, relayed to me with an urgent demand for emergency donations. That's a little puzzling, I thought, and went searching. Didn't find out much, except the opinions proffered by TechWeekEurope, itself not exactly an organ I trust, but still. Bears wondering about, and I'll continue to do what I do. Just sign the petitions, on a case by case basis.

Btw, tried the cybersecurity quiz on the same site, which I aced. I am Fort Knox. I suspect if you score less than I did on this multiple choice sheet you should not be online unescorted by your mum, but it's fun. Try it and see! My live mealworms finally arrived yesterday, after spending eight days in the hands of the Royal Mail, and looking about at lively as that moribund organisation itself. Still, I picked out the wriggliest and set up my market stall, in despair as to how the birds would find them (having taken down all feeders but the niger seed for the goldfinches, who are still buying).This morning, two blue tits spotted the new arrivals, immediately followed by a tree rat (grey squirrel), that got itself a fairground ride spinning around on the top of the feeder.

The keynote tree is a horse-chestnut near Patching, just coming into bloom. The title of this entry comes from another Houseman poem, which I would love as much as I love the wild cherries one, except for the last verse; I find it petulant. The enchantress, if it's okay to use the term outside poetry, I met in Patching Woods, is neither heartless nor witless, and if she makes herself available to all comers, she's doing a good job.

*Did I say neo-fascism? I apologise unreservedly, I was in the wrong and should not have used that term. What I should have said was: "towards policies that would have been viewed as dangerously extreme, hard right wing immorality and corruption, in the recent past."

Sectarians, right and wrong

Wednesday 25th April, rain and wind. I put my big citrus tree out for a fresh water bathe, but the pot blew over so I brought it in. Let the rains continue, but it's so cold! It's hard to believe I should be beginning to look for the swifts again. Funny thing, I remember thinking, just as that "chaotic" hot summery weather in March came to an end, actually this probably IS the summer...

The anti-fascist protest was worse than I'd thought. Approximately 100 fascists, "marching for England", guarded by approximately 1,000 police, and I'm not exagerrating by much. Bussed in from Sussex from Surrey from Kent, the forces of law and order lined the Queens Rd, facing the troublemakers who lined the pavements. The vanguard of the marchers, mainly young men (what? you'd guessed?), had all the glum truculence of football hooligans, who know they are hated and just soak it up. In the rear, one poor little girl "marched" sobbing between her parents. The more respectable protesters, among whom I was standing to be counted, shouted "Fascist Scum!" "We don't want your vile ideas in Brighton", "St George was Syrian, you ignorant nutters!". I felt we were for all the world like purely partisan "Catholics", indignant at a "Protestant" march unwisely allowed to pass through their territory. I've no doubt, by the way, that the puny "March for England" is a racist, Islamophobe, extreme right wing event, but though I'm still glad I turned out, it's always better to know, where was that justified fear? Lost, completely lost, so the protesters seemed to have no right to their right reason, and the marchers seemed merely stubborn and bewildered hobbyists.

Peter and I left long before the violence, and didn't go near the speeches, if there were any. Down in the town, the police had helpfully arranged two corrals, one for the Marchers and one for the Protesters... and of course the lads in the yellow gilets and very sensible shoes were forced to pitch in and sort stuff out. It was a good old ruck, apparently. Shocking. Obviously this Fascist march thing ought to be banned, as being a deliberate provocation of sectarian violence, in this fair city of righteous, volatile Utopians.

And then what shall we ban next?

Reading fiction: The Father Of Locks, Andrew Killeen Very entertaining, erudite Thousand-And-One-Nights themed detection, set in C7 (?8) CE Baghdad in the Caliphate. Killeen acknowledges his debt to Robert Irwin's Arabian anthology Night and Horses and the Desert (if you can get hold of it) Both highly recommended, and apparently Killeen has a sequel out (did I need to tell you that), this March. & then the Amazon page for The Father Of Locks recommended I read The Memory Of Love, Aminatta Forna, and I don't know what the connection is, since The Memory of Love is set in Sierra Leone, partly in the sixties, partly "now", but I'm grateful for the tip off. Serious, emotionally engaging, top literary writing, and really good. I think I'll now read everything she's written.

The keynote picture is of St Edmund, King and Martyr, a credible alternative for patron of England, who at least lived here (see Inspired championing of this notion in last week's Private Eye), until his team came second in a scrap with the Danes, and Edmund ended up tied to a tree, shot so full of arrows he resembled a hedgehog. There's a tree in the picture, I'm not sure what kind. Maybe an oak? His feast day is apparently 20th November.

I'm getting onto the Council now. I reckon we should have street-parties.

Headhunters and Standing Up To Be Counted

Friday 20th April, clear skies, less chilly. Promise of more rain tomorrow. This lone birch is such a generic picture, every tree photographer must have one, it seems unecessary to give it a location. It's on a hill.

Went to see Headhunters last night at the Dukes. Fantastic! So much fun! I really couldn't fault it, except, maybe, Crazy Lotte's plot dump. But what's a thriller writer to do? Slow down the breakneck pace by explaining what's going on? Nah, just get it all over with in one little burst, well, all right, one huge babbling unlikely blurt, but I didn't care. So many neat twists and hugely entertaining moments, but I feel many will agree that the passage involving the Vicious White Attack Dog, and the Venal Farmer's Horrible Old Tractor, had a special and glorious charm.

Have ordered live mealworm feeder. Think I'll wait until its turned up and been installed before ordering the worms. Have cleared it with Peter that the live worms have to live in the fridge (but not the freezer nb). Have not discussed issue with Gabriel as yet.

Ginger is much improved. The green slime attack seems to be over.

So now, on Wednesday night Maude came round to eat, and laid on us her stickers for the Stand Against March for England thing, centre of Brighton on Sunday. I try to avoid thinking about the EDL. The whole situation there (remember Liam Fox's exit? Try to figure out our lovely Prime Minister's position visavis Atlantic Bridge?), makes me feel the world has become so Nineteen Thirties I can't stand it. My position, eroded as it may be, remains as stated in the Bold As Love sequence. You're rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic*, mates! We are a world at war, sure, and we need to get on that footing, but it's against no human enemy, for although humanity's inexorable growth is the root of all the problems, the brilliant successes of that growth also show the only ways forward, the only ways we can save ourselves and the living world.

I'm not a Communist (read, Islamist) or a Fascist (well, if the name still fits, why change it?) either, and given what I can't help knowing about the past, anyone trying to convince me I should become a fellow-traveller with one of those cunning and implacable plans for world domination, because the other is Pure Evil, has a hill to climb. How many notches on Joe Stalin's gun?

Rant over. Sorry. A reminder of why I prefer to talk about my garden on here (Voltaire reference intended) But I think I'm going to be up there in the town centre, Sunday lunchtime, slinking around in the back row or something, muttering, I don't want to be here. Needs must.

*Uk readers, don't you think there's something eerie about all the Remember the Titanic madness? I suppose the craze is giving people employment, but still...Hundred year old shipwreck of a luxury liner, rich folks' excess machine that went down taking the poor with it? Uncanny thing to have a passion for.

Wind And Rain: Ginger Is Poorly

Wednesday 18th April. Back at my desk, after the Easter break. The wind howls, the sparse rain raps my window. The 2012 bird action much reduced again, in line with the RSPB's early survey results. The starlings have once more failed to breed in next door's gutter, the herring gull colony on our rooftops that used to be such a torment is much diminished; one goldfinch remains faithful to our finch-feeder, the blue tits and the (very tame) garden warbler can be seen. So many populations are failing, it's inexorable, and will there ever be an upturn? I can't see it happening. But yesterday I saw the sparrowhawk dart across our gardens, and she's probably responsible for the storm of collared-dove-feathers, sans corpse, on the lower lawn. And I hear a blackbird singing around the close of the afternoon & that's nice.

Peter has totally cleared out and cleaned the little pool, which was very dirty and glistened nastily. Four healthy young frogs seen. No sign of spawn or tadpoles, but the two fish that live in there can now be seen playing together in crystal clear shade, scale rubbing scale where light is dim; but on Sunday the newt (or one of the newts, we hope) was sighted calmly basking in the algae fronds that thickly coat the wall of the larger pool. So, we probably won't give that murky basin the same treatment. My tadpole nursery tub is blooming, and the pet tadpole bowl has been instituted indoors.

Saw The Hunger Games for our Wet Bank Holiday Treat, & we all loved it. Remarkably true to the book (naturally, since book already huge success) and much better than the book, for my taste, despite whacky implications of that virtual-reality control room thing. There's Jennifer Laurence, to start with, & Katniss's internal monologue is no loss. But give Suzanne Collins credit, as a novel, The Hunger Games was made for cinema. Everything that became mildly tedious in print (like the endless grooming of Katniss) gets established on screen in a couple of shots, including the relationships, & the pace benefits enormously. Shame they've lost their director. Also seen: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia Interminable, mythical, daring to bore me into submission; murder without mystery, in an intensely patriarchal society, deconstructed by relentless real-time realism (almost the mirror opposite of The Hunger Games, in ways). That shot of the bright apple, falling from the tree and rolling aimlessly along the dark rivulet, that was wonderful.

I'm reading popular science again, for fun, first time in a long time. So far consumed, Why Beauty Is Truth, Ian Stewart on symmetry. Ian Stewart is patently just as much a teacher as he is a mathematician. Even I could follow his argument, and understand (to some extent!) where he was going with his equations, every step of the way; while also following the pleasingly inclusive historical asides, and any time I got lost, I could follow the thread backwards, and pick it up again. Execellent. But why is truth beauty? That's the hard problem.

God's Philosophers James Hannam. Now this is more like historical science journalism. Very enjoyable, and persuasive. The Mediaeval Scientists rescued from determined, ruthless, albeit well-meaning efforts of a century or two of anti-clerical propaganda. Myth debunking #n: When I was a lass I was always taught (okay, I admit, Koestler's The Sleepwalkers etc taken as gospel, so to speak), that the heliocentric view of the solar system had to win out, because the need for better navigational tables made the drive for accurate, rational readings of planetary movements an economic (& therefore invincible) imperative. Wrong! It was Astrology, the desire of Popes and Kings to have their fortunes read 'accurately' that protected the funding and the tolerance for astronomers and their research. & once I think about it, and see the references, I'm forced to believe this. Oh no! A whole edifice of fear not, the truth will out, for the real facts are of superior practical use demolished.

Critical Mass Philip Ball. I really liked Philip Ball's Bright Earth, all about colours, and their evolution in human society, even though it's a bit all over the place compared eg to anything by Ian Stewart. Critical Mass, about applying the statistical tools of physics to society, from phase transitions and power laws to the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, is good too, esp the catch-up provided on the history and nature of the internet, but isn't impressing me as much, even though it starts with William Petty, a name to which I'm sentimentally attached (which is why I bought the book), simply because I 'studied' his Politickal Arithmetic for about a fortnight as an undergraduate. The chapters on the statistical tools are interesting, but not well taught. The main argument of the book is doomed to be all about imaginary spherical cows, and how they've signally failed to move "us" towards a better place. (Depends on your point of view, of course).

Ginger is poorly with diarrhoea. It's not affecting her mood or behaviour. Just the furnishings, mainly. We've put her on a bland diet, and kaolin-for-cats. Hope it clears up soon.

That huge hollow sycamore tree, the biggest I've ever seen, is near Torver, Cumbria