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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

NHS Risk Register; The White Bears

Thursday 29th March, another brilliant high pressure day, and drought is closing in, though it's going to be cold tonight, and that pattern continues for the forseeable, say the weather people. The dry bright tundra, having been booted out of the Arctic, has come to camp on us, like polar bears, like the sign and symbol White Bears in Suzy Charnas's The Furies, anyone remember them?

The NHS risk register: the leaked document, as my MP remarks, certainly shows why our lovely government was "so deeply worried" by the idea of its contents being made public. More coverage here:

It's not too late to stop some of these destructive changes. Caroline Lucas for one will be keeping up the pressure.

We all take our news from different sources. Gabriel gets his from facebook, which (despite my serious reservations about the business model) is a good source for breaking news. Peter buys The Independent. I always look at New Scientist, to find out the way the wind's blowing, and also the BBC page, because I'm interested to know what I'm supposed to think. But then there's Common Dream, which persists in painting a much more doomy picture via eg the radiation hazard at Fukushima.

I tend to believe Common Dream (and The Japan Times) on this one. But the BBC and NS are both doing a good job, in their way.

National Planning Framework

Wednesday 28th March, yet another day of brilliant sunshine and cloudless blue. The spawn I moved to the nursery tub has now hatched, and the tadpoles are swimming, looking fine. I'm not so sure about the spawn that's staying in the pool, as Ginger found it and chomped it, she loves frogspawn, before I could move it out to the centre. She hasn't fallen in, I'd have noticed, and the spawn is no longer visible, maybe it disintegrated and they hatched, but I can't see them.

And so, the new, game-changing, much feared (by the National Trust, RSPB et al) and much anticipated (by the construction industry and housing developers) National Planning Framework has been unveiled, but so quietly, so very quietly... I wonder what's going on. Cautious relief appears to be the message from the lovers of the English countryside and the living world, so far. Good news for me as I am one of them, and also because I am not daft, and I have seen what happens if you let the unrregulated developers loose & it is not affordable housing in places with the infrastructure, where people want to live. Do I need to say Crash? Do I need to say Ireland? Spain? Italy? But what about the interested parties? The boss of mega construction plant company JCB, and property developers Argent Group eg*. Did they, and those other guys, really waste their dinner money, while Cameron was smiling behind his hand, and setting their ingenuous donations aside for really good causes? Time alone will tell.

Very glad, as an interested party in that I'm fond of Cumbria, about the Ulverston Glaxo factory news, though. So that's two cautious relief stories.

Preparing for the Oxford Sunday Times Literary event tomorrow evening doomed me to review the great Shrinking Female UK SF Writers story of last summer (and extending about a year before that I think). In which I am immortalised playing the part of Aunt Sally. Ah well, someone had to do it. I have learned two things. 1. It is over; 2. The comments on the MindMeld on the Russ Pledge really would suck out your soul, & that's no matter where your sympathies lie. I was warned, thank you whoever you were, some voice lost in those mazes, but I'm a fool and got my soul sucked anyway.

Watching: Still following Homeland, which is a lot more fun than any of the succession of sci-fi/futuristic thriller start-ups of the past decade, and none the worse for the fact that it's all so uniformly repellent. Which is so real, don't you think? Considering the subject matter. But I almost wish I didn't know this was originally an Israeli show; that makes a little too much sense.

Still loving Scott and Bailey, cop-shop soap opera starring three terrific women in great parts; except I start to miss the general public. The cops, they have lives. The criminals, they are feral appalling sleaze-bags. Anyone else is a glimpsed cypher, usually being awkward. I think Lund I (aka The Killing) is on my mind, as a shining example of best practice in this respect.

I've finally taken some new tree pictures! The featured tree this entry: standard beech, Stanmer Park, 24th March.

Many thanks to Beneluxcon, for raising £71.50 for the Freedom FromTorture Medical Foundation

*and their lovely wives, of course. Shame on me.

Female Hard SF Online; ebooks; estories; eself-publishing

Tuesday 20th March. Frost on the grass at dawn yesterday. Today, a grey morning, after days of powder-blue skies. We have live, healthy frogspawn. Not a lot, but enough to get by. I've flushed out the small pool, it now awaits live pond water from the Heart of Reeds. But we might have to give it up, there just isn't enough rain to sustain such a tiny puddle in good health.

This entry is in response to Kathryn Cramer's facebook query. (I'm sorry Kathyrn, but you must have noticed I don't have thoughts on Facebook, I mainly have Avaaz petitions & the like: my advertising, in response to their idea of the products I would love...) You'll see that there are no ads at all here, unless you count the links to my Kindle ebooks. I'm not a fanatical puritan (here I am blogging), but you can call me an idiot: I don't like the idea of being eaten alive by these very large evil parasites & I won't co-operate.

Anyway, your query was about the relative viability of an online anthology of "female authored hard sf".

I think the online anthology is far more likely to see the light of day: simply because I can't see any mainstream sf publisher touching the idea. Even the most dedicated small presses (eq Aqueduct) would have to think carefully. Sf readers, online readers very much included, simply don't believe in hard sf written by women, and this is so widely true of fandom, non-fandom keen readers and the general public, your proposed anthology risks being almost totally ignored. On the other hand there are idealists of the genre to whom "hard sf" means something different, and rather special. So for ambitious young female writers your project could be an opportunity. When you're starting out, getting noticed by just one or two significant people can be very heart-warming.

If anyone invited me to write for such an anthology, I'd probably say no, for the reasons above, but I'd offer a reprint to show my goodwill (I fancy The Fulcrum, for you).

But what is hard sf? The idealists would say "exciting fiction about real science" You have to be a man to write it; women can be praised for trying. The popular vote, empirically, seems to be for mechanical engineering, weapons, and go-faster-striped starfighters. I suspect it's one of those things readers judge by a feeling.

There was a discussion about the value to writers of the various new forms of publishing, at Beneluxcon last weekend. My feeling (we didn't get to our final comments, we ran out of time and the space was needed for an award ceremony) is that e-publishing, like printing on demand, through some agent like Smashwords, Amazon or the American Book Centre can't yet replace getting published professionally, and maybe never will. Publishers are many-talented people, or teams, who do work few writers can absorb into their own schedules. But maybe the e-venues have replaced the vanished, unpretentious, bookstall and subscription printed magazines etc, where a writer could get a first taste of publication, and even an encouraging little bit of money. So that's a good thing.

Meanwhile, I'm e-publishing my backlist, in principle if not in any hurry, for completely different reasons. Not to do with piracy, either. It's the new laws roaming around the horizon about orphan works. I may not even be affected, but I don't like the sound of them, and you know how it is these days. Any time you find yourself saying "it'll never happen, it's too awful, corrupt, illegal and unjust..." You will be wrong.

Just when we'd agreed not to spend any money this year, having "done" Brighton Festival so thoroughly last year, along comes The Musician's Body. What a fantastic programme. Unmissable items!

Ghosts, Dreams,Nothingness

Thursday 15th March, same high pressure weather, only more so. In the early morning, white mist with the sun through it, all the branches of the little elm and the red maple sparkling with dew. It's going to be warm

Short entry: the Ghosts talk is now uploaded, read it here:

Short reading list:

(two contrasting online essays on "The Great God Pan")


The House By The Churchyard Sheridan Le Fanu. 1863. In my opinion, the best of Le Fanu's "Mystery and the Supernatural" novels. There's at least one no-kidding ghost story embedded in the expansive narrative, but the spooky element is mostly (as in "Green Tea") in the mind; in a mood of darkness. Features some excellent CSI work. Seek it out.

The Red Tree Caitlin Kiernan. A fine example of an updated Lovecraft scenario, using the same layered narrative as the classics. Madness or demons from the pit, unspeakable orgies or just difficult sexual fantasies. And did she actually murder anyone? I really don't know.

The Art Of Opposition

Wednesday 14th March, and another misty morning. The nights are sharp, the afternoon skies clear and powder blue. One mass of frogspawn, in the wrong pool; of which I've carefully removed a lump to the plasterer's tub, don't like disturbing it, but the fish are not safe company. The smaller pool needs flushing out, there's just not been enough rain. And not much on the horizon.

Didn't get round to reporting on my visit to the NHS frontline rally in Central Hall last week, and there isn't in fact a lot to say. The hall was packed, the ambience was of a revivalist meeting. Everytime anyone on the platform said "Nye Bevan"* or "Save Our NHS" the crowd roared, clapped and in many cases stood up, to express their emotion. If anyone said "DO WE WANT THIS BILL?" everyone roared NO!. Any more complex statements, eg from clinical staff, were received in a silence that seemed, if only by contrast, bewildered. (Give us a clue, what are we supposed to roar now?) A couple of times hecklers proposing wholesale strike action were removed. I don't know if the peacemaking letter addressed to the PM by Dr Clare Gerada the chair of the Royal College Of General Practitioners was already known to the organisers, but I'm sure everybody up there was feeling that all this we shall fight them on the beaches was a kind of sad ritual, that must be respected. Only comedian and former psychiatric nurse even mentioned that the rot had set in in the eighties, when cleaning hospitals first went out to the cheapest tender. Now, in a few years, we're set to be going all the way to the USA and beyond. Health insurance firms getting disgustingly fat, the poor living in fear. Interestingly, the only two speakers actually engaged in government, Lib Dem MP Andrew George, and reprimanded Cumbrian Medical Officer John Ashton, both explained to us, in just about so many words, that there was no hope, because Dave could not possibly climb down,(no matter if he was perfectly convinced by the general protests that his Health and Social Care Bill was ruinous and cruel). It's a man thing. The guy can't help it, the size of his virility would be in question...

(Nonsense, btw. It's a profit motive thing.)

What I missed was any tough talk about a way forward, strategy and tactics for fighting the defeat. Fighting the defeat is what opposition in government is supposed to be about. You don't give up, if you are the forces of the Good State, in bad times like these. You keep out of trouble as long as is humanly possible (not any further!), and you keep hauling the other way, by all means you can possibly invent. You never do nothing because you can't do much. I suppose it wasn't the setting.

So, oh well, I suppose I'm happier now.

So, anyway, I found a page with a cogent explanation of the crash of the urban sparrow population, and now I know what we have to do in the fledgling season. Feed live meal worms. It's worth trying.

Must flush out that pool, and get some new dipped live pondwater from the Heart of Reeds.

And many thanks to Beneluxcon, for helping me to make £71.50 from selling my books for the Freedom From Torture medical foundation

GOH talk on Ghosts will be made available soon.

*My parents disagreed with Bevan btw. They wanted the Health Service means-tested (like access to Higher Education was) from the get-go. But I don't know. I went to University with some absolute toffs who were on the full grant. Were they poor, were they hell. Their parents had good accountants.

Ladies, shall we join the gentlemen...

Wednesday 7th March, a dark and stormy morning out there, but no rain for us today apparently.

Coalminer's Daughter. Finished The Hunger Games tril. The tale of Bathsheba Everdene (I'm sorry, I mean Katniss Everdeen, but I kept thinking of Far From The Madding Crowd, because this proud coal-miner's daughter in the sticks has three contrasting suitors, and spends the trilogy choosing between them)*. Verdict, the first was very readable, gripping and even inspired, in the way it combined teen reality tv princess and sadistic tv wipeout game. The second installment had middle-book-of-trilogy, let's just go round the circuit again, disease. Can't be helped, commercial fiction will do this. If the target audience doesn't have any objection (and clearly they don't) why not repeat a winning formula at least once? The third installment was a lot more substantial, but when the tv wipeout game morphs into a vicious civil war between the two political factions in this remnant of the USA (hey, lets call them the Republicans and the Democrats), the first person narrative becomes really inadequate, in my opinion.

I suppose the trouble is, Katniss isn't officer material. There's no reason why she should be, her name was just picked out of a hat. But there's no reason why she shouldn't be, and for me this was a bum choice on Collins's part. It means we get a full-on war, told from the point of view of a deracinated and paranoid squaddie, who happens to have been picked out to be Poster Girl for the conflict; who doesn't care what's going on, doesn't have any witty asides, and who dismisses all the politics and all the war-room discussions as nothing to do with her. And her Forrest Gump "I was just here and they made me a hero" act definitely isn't sweetened by any naive good-hearted charm.

The failure in the narrative is one reason why I won't be recommending this series. The second is that though you might have thought, in your innocence, since aimed at shaping the minds of young teens, that this would be an "anti-war" story, it certainly is not! This is a story that glorifies militarism, much in the same way as Bigelow's "It's incredibly cool to be a damaged vet!"The Hurt Locker.

Still, it kept me reading and got me posting. The movies may well be better fun. Though if Katniss is going to come out on screen as "a futuristic Joan of Arc" there are going to be a lot of changes!

Also consumed, Charlize Theron in Young Adult. Suckered by the trailer, which includes every single one of the three good lines, along with the rest of the full house at The Dukes. We sat in stony silence, all of us. Respect to Theron, she did a very good job, but what I saw was bitchy, shallow point-scoring, directed at all and sundry: spiteful and not funny. Net result, I worried that I was judging Juno harshly when I found it a little sickly. No longer.

People understand and even approve when you say you don't like the way everything in the world is about men, and male-dominated values. Unfortunately they just get purely bewildered when you say you don't like the ladies' section of this man's world, and don't aspire to be admired there.

You don't want to be a man, and you don't want to be a woman either? Huh? What can she possibly mean?

Ah, well. It's a koan.

*You've read the books, and you thought Katniss only had two guys after her? No, she has three. The third being a tyrannical older man, arguably quite insane; whose imperious love-gifts and favours are a feature of the whole series; who fascinates her, and for whom she develops a strange kind of respect.

Pickled Cabbage No Frogs

Tuesday 28th February, grey and still morning. Days of mist clearing to blue, a scoured, dry April feeling to the weather for our February trip to Stratford on Avon where we saw three kingfishers darting along the river at Tiddington, numerous swans and geese, and crowds of amazing tropical butterflies in a sort of big hot humid plastic shed called Butterfly World; oh and a good play, with the added value of young Ebenezer (Raymond Coultard) from The Muppets Christmas Carol playing a lovely bishop in wonderful ivory satin robes, (who unfortunately turns into a baddie) oh and a good meal, fine dining enough to please Gabriel the Masterchef addict, but free of furniture polish icecream. Stratford on Avon, we were suprised and pleased to find, still has Closing Time, and curfew on the town centre streets by midnight is almost complete. How unlike our own fair city, and what a good idea!

Inspired by a true story, wonderfully staged and not much constricted by facts, (to my relief, says Helen Edmundon, or words to that effect, I discovered that the life history of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has plenty of gaps*) The Heresy of Love is a highly charged, cracking good show. Except if it had been me, I'd have given the soliloques to Sor Juana herself, rather than the aforementioned lovely bishop. Who only said exactly what any naughty bishop would say, when succumbing to the temptation of flirting with a beautiful, intellectual nun. Whereas Juana, the mystery woman, could have told us a lot...

I saw the male blackcap yesterday, singing madly from the peak of the cypress tree. No frog activity at all. (This is general, apparently. Frogs should be breeding now, and they aren't) There has to be a year when the decline is over and there is nothing left. I don't think it will be this year, but who knows.

And that's the end of Occupy St Pauls, finally evicted. Occupy smouldered, but it did not catch fire at least not over here. And despite the horrible cost of living with this truly shameless and destructive greed is good government of ours, we'd be worse off if there was more accelerant around, I have to admit. Because look at Syria... Look at Eygypt, indeed. Or Baghdad.

Look what happens to the women after the revolution, or the forced regime change, and you know everything.

I have pickled the red cabbage.

*likewise her online presence. Looking for resources, I found mainly start-ups