Skip to content

Winter Journey

New Year, a raw cloudy day, snow flurries. On a hard yellow clay path, on the way from Forest Row to Weir Wood reservoir, Peter notices that the snow flakes are landing, by ones and twos, as distinct, solid little six-lobed white flowers, as if we're being showered by elder-blossom under a June hedgerow. And then the reservoir, looking like a miniature Coniston in its pewter length and setting between green slopes and bare woods. A flock of ewes being moved from one pasture to another, with the assistance of three men, one boy, one dog, and earnest use of mobile phones (five people coming down the lane. . .Over). The lively sussurration of their passage, bright eyes in neat, narrow heads, a swarm of nimble legs flashing under a yellowish-white heaving wave of fleece. And then the hide, cold to the bone, where we ate Christmas cake and little oranges, and watched blue tits, great tits, a robin, mallards, a pair of pheasants bustling round the auxiliary feeders. On the water, a single gadwall, plenty indeterminate ducks; coots, geese and one big puzzling diving bird with a white breast and an industrial-sized hooked beak (it was an immature cormorant). So cold! As if the cold had been waiting in ambush in here, disarmed by our movement outdoors; to show us it meant business. Wouldn't like to try and sleep out tonight. Must double our donation to Antifreeze.

I'm walking along thinking about The Magic Mountain (a book I lost when I left it in the pocket of my yellow mackintosh, in the cab of a truck, when I was hitchhiking through Greece with my friend Marilyn, many years ago; and I've only just finished reading it). I'm puzzled about the seances. Thomas Mann, like Balzac, like Dostoevsky, has a tendency to "go off on one" as they say in my country. You won't just hear that our hero took up another interest illustrating the preoccupations of his epoch. You'll get a whole treatise on Progress, or Physiology, or Nationalism, or X-rays, and then he'll kind of rub his eyes & go on with the story. It's not a problem, but Spiritualism? Ectoplasm, tinkling bells, spirit guides? It was a big deal, it can't be left out, it belongs in there along with raving proto-fascist Jesuit sybarites. What worries me is that the stuff seems to work, seems to be given the same reality-status as botany, as Hans's perfectly real psychological-visionary experience in the snow. I know what I mean by the mind/matter tech in my own work. I mean that we do not know where scientific thought and technological development will take us next. All we know for sure is that so far, our model of the world has been "destroyed and remade", time and again, and new, wild vistas of possibility have opened up just when everything seemed to be over. Therefore we can hope, or fear, that it will happen again. . . I do not mean that I believe in magic. So does Thomas Mann actually believe that you can conjure dead people? Or what is he up to? Aha, I have a clue. The apparition of (my favourite character) in the WWI battlefield get-up that seems so bizarre, doesn't belong to any of the characters, it doesn't come from the Unknown Beyond Death, it comes from the Unknown Beyond The Fictional World: it's an authorial intrusion, provided by Thomas Mann writing after the War was over.

The best way to experience a big book (for the first time) is to read it on a journey, such as in the passage from Christmas to New Year, spent a vehicle of free, unhurried hours that shuts out everything but immemorial tradition.

I also read A Tale Of Two Cities, having been alerted by a Wikipedia entry to the notion that this is "the best novel ever written" (I was checking a reference for North Wind). Which didn't seem too likely, though I sometimes wonder if I'm misjudging Dickens owing to the prejudice of establishment criticism which I absorbed when I was too young to know that there are fashions in literary reputation, same as anything else. Nah. I liked the opening passages very much. (Not "It was the Best of Times...", I mean the Stage Coach passengers in the mud on Shooter's Hill bit), but this is lightweight. I'll stick with The Muppets Christmas Carol, if I want to take Dickens seriously. The fact that there is often prejudice should not blind us to the fact that sometimes there is justice. And Schoenberg, Kandkinsky and the Blue Rider, (eds Esther da Costa Meyer and Fred Wasserman). I was led to this fascinating book by The Art Of Noise, having been intrigued to learn that Schoenberg painted his own Expressionist pictures as well as inspiring Kandinsky's Concert. I'm not going to go off on one, but did you know, the young Schoenberg wrote what is known as program-music, just like an ordinary mortal? I mean, he wrote music impelled by passion, full of coded messages about transfiguring, vital incidents in his own life, and then he lied about it, insisting that real, progressive music has nothing to do with the composer, and anyone who says human emotion has anything to do with it is just full of c**p. . . Funny thing is, T.S.Eliot did exactly the same thing! I was disgusted at T.S.Eliot when I found that out, now I'm disgusted at them both. When young people may be trusting you, you are free to remain silent about stuff, but you must not lie! Eliot worked in a bank, too.

Didn't think much of Schoenberg's pictures (nor did anyone, it seems). But I do like his weird music.

Here ends the contribution I could have made to those Year's Best requests I ignored, as I was too busy being lost in space. Here ends a winter journey

Des Hommes Et Des Dieux: Azrou

26th December, frosty calm and still, a clear silver-gilt sunset light.

July 27th this year, we took the night bus from Meknes to Azrou, a town in the Middle Atlas, about an hour and a half south of Fes. I was not hoping to go trekking in the Cedar Forest (protected here, as a huge chunk of it has been bought by some Desert Arab rich nation, maybe the Emirates?); hoping at best for a hired taxi and a stroll. Azrou is nothing like high enough (1,200 metres) to be cool in summer. We were gently yet ruthlessly propositioned by a "mountain guide" as soon as we left the bus station, but I may be English, I'm not such a mad dog as to want to go hiking at 40 degrees, even to benefit the local economy. But a funny thing happened. By the time we'd chosen ourselves a room, actually a suite, with wonderful views, in the estimable Hotel Panorama, the roasting aftenoon had turned cool. So we went out for a walk, and then decided we might as well go all the way to the deserted Benedictine monastery and dispensary (the monks had to leave in the nineties, due to anti-Christian feeling, it says in the Rough Guide). We climbed up out of Azrou, took the minor road to Tioumliline, a wind got up and the sky grew dark as a bruise. We were just saying to each other that in England this would mean a thunderstorm, when the storm struck. It almost wasn't fun: the temperature plunged and we were getting battered by icy, driven hail, scrabbling for shelter.

We hid under a tree until the hail stopped. We climbed the flights of concrete steps that seemed likely to lead somewhere, but there was no signage. We guessed we must have found the old monastery, when we recognised the church, locked except for a bare shadowy porch;with the red and gold stained glass windows,the Lamb of God still intact at the eastern end. There was a dormitory block, store buildings, vegetable gardens, a lone donkey that had got into a shed full of grain in sacks and was having guilty fun. All empty, unoccupied, but with fairly fresh, fairly crude paintwork and repairs. . a strange air of a place partially restored, but then abandoned again, quite recently.

Next day the weird weather continued, so that we were able to walk: out from our hotel all the way up to the forest. We made a 16mile circuit of it in the end, around the valley and among the wonderful great trees. We got pounded by rain, we got dry again, we didn't care, and the temperature was miraculously cool. We asked the manager at the Panorama, is this normal for July? No! he said, laughing (possibly at our dreadful french). It's utterly bizarre. Nature has been bizarre this year.

Azrou was an adventure, that walk to the deserted monastery the kind of lost, offbeat experience that often spins a story out of me (nearly all my short stories are travel stories), but I don't think that's going to happen this time, because last week I went to see Of Gods And Men. For a long time resisted what I was seeing. I told myself the landscape of the Atlas mountains must be the same in Algeria as in Morocco. That probably all the little roads winding around in the bare, sweeping hill country of North Africa look exactly the same. And the mountain village attached to the monastery in the story definitely wasn't Azrou. . . which is a happening little burg, as my old pal Bruce Sterling would say, a small city that's getting a lot of money pumped into it. (When we were there, in Ramadan, the coloured lights and the fountains at night, for the passagiata, were as magical as money and good taste could make them). I finally twigged, when Christian (wrestling with the tempations of martyrdom) goes for a walk in a great golden clearing, forested hillsides on every horizon. No, I thought. This is not a coincidence. I've walked exactly there, I've seen that very skyline. . . It was a little distracting, from then on I was partly waiting for the location credits to find out if I was right: which I was.

I thought, from what I'd heard, that movie would be like Boonmee, a fascinating fragment. When the monk who could recall his past lives turns out to have passed on, and you decide to make the show anyway (like those documentaries where the giant squid never turns up). When the dying man's dead wife has come back, a real person, not a ghost, to be the one who takes his hand and helps him across the river; when the two witnesses have returned from that shadowy and thrilling borderland, to an everyday world that seems so drab and banal. . . you have something extraordinary, a convincing suggestion that dying is an exciting adventure: but it's slight, even allowing for the amorous talking catfish. Actually, Of Gods And Men is a solid, gripping character-driven drama, not about death but about dedication. It reminded me very much of the writing of another French Algerian, Albert Camus. It's just a question of whether two and two make four, says one of the characters in La Peste, explaining why he's finally decided to stay in the plague-ridden city, and cast in his lot with the suffering population, even if he dies for it If you know that two and two make four, then you can't change your mind and agree that two and two makes three, or five, no matter what anybody tells you. (this is not a word for word quotation, nb).

So those were my Christmas movies, a curious contrast with last year, when our festive outings were the Paris ballet Ballet Russes revival live on the Big Screen at the Dukes, and Avatar (Bless it: I can't understand why people don't like Avatar, I thought it was sweet). Also strange the way they're complementary: Of Gods And Men fades out, schematically, where Boonmee fades in. But that fade out, into the snowy mist, must have been a political as well as an artistic decision. In real life, "nobody knows" how the six monks who were taken hostage actually died, or who actually killed them. (The kind of "nobody knows" where there's a fair chance the vicious Algerian military did those particular "Islamist terrorist executions" themselves, accidentally or on purpose). Better just let that brave little company vanish, then, without apportioning blame. Maybe that's why Mark Kermode's intense appreciation of the movie was marked by uneasiness: he wanted to know whose side he ought to be on. Is it okay is it cool, to find yourself regarding French Catholic monks as heroes? But there aren't any "sides", not in this version of the legend (and it's a legend, already was one before the movie was born or thought of; check it out). It's just a question of whether two and two make four. Anyway, set your prejudices aside and go and see it. Also, try to resign yourself to subtitles. You know it makes sense. You know Hollywood remakes are always inferior and generally utterly dire. What is up with you people? Can't you read???

Revised by Gwyneth on 6th January, a day of heavy cold rain, because I finished a task this morning and was doomed to idle this afternoon away, watching a trashy action movie and noodling. I haven't resigned myself to the new year as yet. Really, what is the point in committing to 2011, with all this apocalyptical stuff going on? Might be a complete waste of time.

But Is It Art

Thursday 23rd December, cool and cloudy. Rest of the UK probably still blanketed in ice and snow, but we are in the grey all over sliver of the Channel Coast. So unfair.

They've broken the Gulf Stream, you know. They have! They've broken it and They're not telling us, because it would cause Panic in the Streets and Questions in the House. Our local climate change scientists aren't telling us either, because of when they made a mess and got their noses rubbed in it, when really, some big kids made it look like they'd made a mess and then ran away; but the teachers Knew this and still made the poor scientists stand on a stool and get derision poured on them. So now they're not going to tell us anything again, ever, but the truth is we're all headed for Siberia. There's nothing to be done. Soon we won't be crying about poor pensioners not getting to the shops or poor Common Folk not being able to get home to Paris or get away to the Canary Isles, or to Disneyland for the Festive Season, we'll be crying because we can't afford to buy bread. We won't be able to grow all those winter crops that have been our silent "green revolution" here, outdoors, and then, later most of the UK won't even be able to grow wheat outdoors. And those students needn't worry about tuition fee debt, because they're all going to be slaves of the Asda Totalitarian State Glasshouses. . .

Nah, only joking.

From a certain point of view, global warming isn't the problem, it's the solution. It's "Gaia's" (so to speak) solution to the problem that's devastating the biosphere, and while "Gaia" is not likely to actually get rid of us, "She" certainly has the power to mess us up, even here in our safe rich north. I've been using the always winter and never Christmas, "Don't Care Was Made To Care" scenario for fun, for quite a while. I don't believe it, of course I don't, no more than I believe in aliens arriving. But what if?

That Tuition Fee Scam, Links roundup

Friday 26th November, a cold dry day, frost on the roofs, ice on the pools. Frosty nights, Orion clear and bright framed in the long window on the landing, the stars of the sword sadly faint, betelgeuse an orange spark; and in the dark before dawn, Venus a dab of brilliant green glitter in the south east. Maybe it'll snow down here tomorrow...

That tuition fees scam. Correction, the students aren't protesting and their teachers aren't supporting them because the students are resentful of a price hike that's part of the country's much needed austerity drive. Many of those out on the streets are out there in despair, having good reason to fear they never mind those who come after them will never be paying the massively increased fees: since their earnings will never reach the £21,000 p.a. threshold. They will be in debt for life, effectively indentured to the State. The protest is against the Government's cunning plan (following in New Labour's footsteps, let it be said) to use Higher Education as a source of direct revenue. The increased fees are meant to finance more university places, the irrational goal is to have, at the least, around 50% of all eighteen year olds absorbed by perfectly useless "degree courses" in what will still be called "Higher Education"; while at the same time funding and staffing cuts make it completely impossible for the universities to provide goods fit for purpose, in teaching and knowledge resources.

It doesn't make sense. Seed corn must not be ground. But it's Capitalism's most evil dream come true. More and more customers, higher and higher prices, less and less value. That Nice Mr Cameron should be happy, and why not? The window-breaking will pass, the poor children will have to stop crying and eat their cold porridge, which is as it should be. But That Nice Mr Clegg is a marvel, isn't he. He ought to be in pictures. Something by Hogarth, I think. The Liberal's Progress, what d'you think?

Oh, excuse me, of course the elite will be fine (students and institutions both) because they are rich to start with. I shouldn't forget to mention that.

The photo is one I took in Paris, November 2003, the now-legendary Anti-Pub action. It seemed to fit the bill better than a police kettle and window-breakers montage.

Links round up:
Al Robertson ("Golden") reprises Wm Gibson's Gernsback Continuum, with the wry 21st century twist that visions of a shiny perfect future that never happened bring hope and longing rather than disquiet. Somebody's messing around wickedly with a rockstar's most personal intellectual property, in the P K Dick continuum revisited by Chris Butler ("Have Guitar, Will Travel"). A feisty and well-connected heroine, in a far future space opera setting not a billion light years from Mr Ian M. Banks's Culture, has adventures on the edge of time and space (Lavie Tidhar, "Lode Stars"). . . The one I liked best (it's still lingering in my mind right now) was the more contemporary-feeling "Dolls", (Colin P.Davis),somewhere in Fred Pohl territory, and as a bonus there's a whimsical miniature from Tanith Lee. Respect for the traditions of genre, uniformly solid writing and a refreshingly international feel, what more could you ask? Cunningly placed for Christmas shoppers, The Immersion Book of SF bodes well for Carmelo Rafala's Brighton based Immersion Press.

I hadn't heard from Mute Magazine for quite a while (original home of a very dirty, Swiftian story of mine, I Am An Anarchist, warning this is not pleasant material). Have they just found me again, or are the art and culture radical zineists having a growth spurt? Anyway, check them out. There seems to be a lot going on & I wish I could make it to the launch of No Room To Move. I'm very interested in public art at the moment.

Last but not least, don't forget From-Bar-to-Bar. Still running the most innovative and daring sf/related interviews on the planet. Charles Stross and Jeff Vandermeer are two of the victims to look out for.

Finally!

Wednesday 17th November. First white roofs of the season, yesterday, but this morning milder air returns with more wind and rain. No floods yet in Sussex.

Walking out in the autumn woods on Sunday, Angmering estate. The woodland paths were not dry! We got wet, and found the sweet chestnuts long gone, rotted or eaten, the fungi sodden, but the beeches in the last of their autumn glory as always seeming more beautiful than ever. Holly bushes thick with scarlet, amazingly intense in the gloom of a dark November afternoon (it means there was a hard winter, you know; not that there's going to be one. See how even weather myths change and evolve? I picked up that new one somewhere recently, can't remember where). I'd show you the pictures, but they were on Peter's phone, which sadly he mislaid at Belfast airport yesterday.

Next time we visit those woods it will probably be for the bluebells.

Finished restoring Phoenix Café last night. I've just sent it off to Kath Wilhelm at Aqueduct Press, so that's a job done (I hope, and barring a few queries). The Ebook Aleutian Trilogy, all new, revised edition, is on the road again, and off my hands. Just for fun, (it really is funny), here's a recent discussion of the Gollancz edition Or rather the cover, a far more amusing topic.

And finally! Lovefilm is sending me Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. I've only had that movie on my list, high priority, (on reserve from the moment I found out it was going to be re-released) for about three years.

All Students Are Equal

Up to Manchester again, a bright chilly day in the middle of a week of wind and rain. Seen on Victoria station: the sme hand written legend repeated on several teeshirts: "ALL STUDENTS ARE EQUAL. SOME STUDENTS ARE MORE EQUAL. . . and they'd run out of space, for "THAN OTHERS". Thus a literary heritage is debased by copyists' errors, even while being sincerely revered. Good on you, kids, I thought. You won't win, but, but, it's the refusal to shut up that matters. It's saying something that distinguishes you from a doormat.

Also thought of walking up to one of these bobbing gaggles and straggles of bright-eyed youth, on Victoria and on Euston concourse, and expressing my good wishes, but decided against. Contented myself with looking at the young women's feet; was glad to see their footwear was uniformly sensible. None of those wicked toe-cleavage ballet pumps.

Autumn leaves picked up in the park for my mother. "I'll never go there again", she says, tragically. Though sorry to burst her bubble, I pointed out we could take a taxi to go tree-peeping right now. But she didn't feel well enough. "When I'm better". Yes, I know when that will be.

And back in time to watch the Derby in Brighton: United proudly maintaining their flatlined, not-losing form. Sigh.

On the Level

Tuesday 9th November, less rain and wind than yesterday (which was a day for sandbags at the back door); thick cloud suffused with light; a fresher air. To whom it may concern: if you either live in Brighton and Hove, or you'd like to see urban green spaces preserved, spare a thought for The Level, a wide open flat green space in the centre of Brighton, bordered by the last stand of European Elms, historic preserve of fairs, festivals, football, people practising their juggling, tai chi, staggering babies, dogs racing after sticks, lunchtime escapes to fresh air under a wide sky, or just a place to sit and talk, lie down and stare at the clouds. They say that underarm bowling (or was it overarm, I forget) was established here: anyway, some of the rules and customs of cricket were hammered out on the Level, two hundred years ago. The Council has been muttering about developing this resource, or "restoring the Level" (where are those spending cuts when you need them, eh?): this now turns out to mean a large chunk being cut out of the North End, the open green space: for the provision of a new skatepark, and a cafe. There's a cafe at the South End of the Level, and a skatepark too. It needs refurbishing, so by all means let it be refurbished. Leave the North End green.

So, here's the petition. Please sign up.

About that (Space) Opera Thing:

Finished restoring North Wind for the ebook edition, and sent it off to Aqueduct. It's a favourite of mine, of all my books (cf Midnight Lamp, must be something about middle episodes) White Queen*is Wagnerian, tragic and seems more contemporary now than it did in 1990 (the near future being eerily upon us, my subject being "how does a decent, moral person become a terrorist?). Phoenix Cafe is weird and decadent and shockingly sexy (Puccini). North Wind is a fairytale of forgiveness (Mozart), an adventure, a romance of the Great Game, written in those innocent years when people believed war was wrong, and something we should be trying to put behind us.

You don't need to read the Aleutian Trilogy before you read Spirit, that's like saying you have to read the Silmarillion before you can tackle The Lord Of The Rings. The earlier stories are very different, and the narrative connection's very slight. But North Wind is the one I'd reccommend, for its own sake.

Although possible not for your average UK sf fan.

*Speaking of "Speaking Aleutian". Funny thing, in 1991 when I arrived in Madison Wisconsin, courtesy of the Tiptree Award win, I had the feeling that the people who'd read the book (ie the Tiptree judges) were expecting Braemar Wilson. I felt the weird disjoint, when Gwyneth Jones turned out to be me, not an exquisite, cynical. tortured soul of a hyperfeminine media star.

Even scrubbed up, I'm not much of a natty dresser.

Also just finished reading Alone In Berlin, Mm. I suppose it does deserve all those five star reviews, but in the end, it has no fresh insights, no revelation. The resistance of ordinary German people to the appalling Nazi machine was a painful, long-drawn out and isolated, pitiful little business. Think we knew that.

Red Sky, Purple Sage, Crushed Pine, Autumn Falls, Meteor Silver. . .

Red Sky in the morning, a flamboyant dawn, Monday 25th of October. On the Saturday night we'd had people round for dinner (My B'stilla went very well, to my amazement; I believe Peter's signature chicken and preserved lemon tagine has been better). Half term week, we said. We're going to decorate the stairwell! A slightly anxious silence ensued. The biggest room in the house, said Dinah. Those high ceilings. . . But we always do our own decorating, except that one time when we went off on holiday, leaving ourselves at the mercy of the colour scheme we thought we'd picked out from those pesky colour cards. . .and spent the next twenty years sleeping in a neapolitan candy ice cream parlour. Undeterred, we plunged into dust bunnies and sugar soap, knuckle-eating sanding blocks, evil hateful extending ladders and paint-rollers on poles.

There must be an easier way. Something brilliant and new.

There probably is, only we are ignorant of the modern world, and only know the way to B&Q

Are you sure about Purple Sage, Peter? Please try to put The Grateful Dead connection out of your mind, and visualise how long we're likely to live with this.

That bxxxxxd Silver Meteor. I hate it. It lacks the single most important characteristic of paint. It sticks to nothing except me, and anything I wish I hadn't touched.

By Wednesday afternoon we had discovered Green, and though Green swiftly discovered a lot of places it should not, we felt we were in sight of the distant goal.

Thankfully, we always cook for about twenty and then invite four people, so that dinner party was still sustaining us with high-grade leftovers.

Friday evening, oh, I was so tired, and somebody left the door to the basement open. A cat came up the stairs. If it had been Milo. . . well, it was Ginger, curious and unperturbed, sniffing at the sticky crushed pine skirting boards, eyeing up the ladders. There was a moment (for which I take full responsibility) when I should have grabbed my paint kettle, and I grabbed for the cat instead.

My God. Alas, how easily things go wrong. . . and in classic style, I suspect it wasn't the accident, it was our frantic attempts to recover the situation. She's on my knee now, wearing an Elizabethan Collar of clear plastic. I hope and believe she's going to be okay, but after we'd got the paint off, the fur fell out of her right inner thigh and her armpit, and she licked the raw places and got herself an infection. Meanwhile, my right hand, savaged with furious determination in the vet's office, swelled up like a balloon, and Peter has interesting puncture scars inside his left elbow.

We'd been planning to go and see the late night show of Enter The Void . We went to see it on Saturday afternoon instead. Not really the right ambience. The trippiness had to struggle to get through the painkillers, far as I was concerned. But a good cult movie, nonetheless.

Trouble is, I've really gone off Crushed Pine.

The Social Network: First Frost

Thursday 21st October, bright sky; chill air. Definitely crispy out in the garden at 7am, which makes this the first frosty morning of the autumn for us, though not for the UK.

Tuesday night, down to the Dukes to see The Social Network, on Gabriel's earnest reccommendation (But Gabriel, surely you must have noticed I'm not interested in Facebook, and not excited about money?. . . Oh, okay, since it's a piece of your world. . .) It was pretty good. We thought Timberlake (Sean Parker) took a very good part, very natural, and the Mark Zuckerburg actor, Jessie Eisenberg, was excellent. I barely got bored at all. In ways, this reminded me of the movie version of UK political sitcom The Thick Of It (In the Loop 2009). The same almost total concentration on the chilling, painful frivolity of young men in positions of status and power: the same young female voice, offering exasperated commentary from a distance: either disgusted -that would be Erica, the girl who resists Mark's resentful advances, played by Rooney Mara-; or pitying (that would be the young lawyer who passes final judgement on the lad, I think played by Rachida Jones).

We live in a young male world, it says here. There is no alternative, this is it. Girls are either rapacious WAGS, disposable groupies, (shedloads of drug-and-alcohol soaked Asiatic cuties!); or they're some kind of alien life form: superior, benign, and helpless.


Dunno if I'm in a position to argue with that view.

But did you ever notice, with all the evolutionary psychology arguments banging on about what women should be like, or should not do (such as science, such as expect promotion at Larry Summers' Harvard) because they are female animals, you rarely hear what evolution says about the young male hordes, being pronounced as social gospel. They're supposed to die, that's what they're supposed to do. Maybe what I liked best about this movie (and cf Fight Club, not surprisingly), is that Zuckerberg, in Fincher's view, is well aware of this. I know I'm supposed to die. It's written all over Jessie Eisenberg's sad little defensive blank of a face.

The illustration? That's North Wind, from At The Back Of The North Wind, George MacDonald. I'm auditioning cover images for the Aqueduct Press ebook edition of the Aleutian Trilogy. She represents worldly misfortune, ruin and grief. Which is I suppose what our young male world quite rightly fears must ensue, from their point of view, if Women's Liberation should ever become a serious force*.

George MacDonald approves of her, actually. What an old misery eh?

The Downs

Friday 15th October, grey still and cool. Birdsong returning to the garden, as it does at this time of year.

Sunday 10th October, clear blue skies, we take the 79 bus up to Ditchling Beacon. Wildlife spotting at the bus-stop (I'm easily bored), I started counting ladybirds on a garden wall. Ladybird larvae too, creeping around in curious numbers.

Peter: Are those the bad guys?

Gwyneth: I don't think we're doing that anymore, they're just immigrants now. (These East Asian ladybirds, where are they flocking from?) They've moved in, fait accompli.

Yes, indeed, they are harlequins. About this time of year they are looking for somewhere to hide, just like the natives: a bark crevice, a hole in a concrete plinth, to doze away the winter. What are the larvae looking for? I suspect they're about to pupate, how interesting, on a plastered concrete wall?; but here's the bus.

This is kind of a utility walk, for a day when we haven't the time to get further away from town. On the new turned earth, ready for winter wheat, Herring gulls are following the plough, doing like gulls are supposed to do in the Ladybird "What To Look For In Autumn": urban scavengers looking rather amazed at themselves

Hey, just look at us. How positively bucolic!
Still, it's nice to get out.

Walking from Ditchling Beacon, down to the village of Ditchling, a kestrel hanging below us, poised in the air; out the other side & across the downs to the Clayton Windmills, back to the Beacon by Steadman Common. Some of the time on the South Downs Way itself, always on well-trodden tracks, this is a part of the downs that has lost some detail, become coarsened by use rather than by agribusiness, on its way to getting the feeling of a municipal park, but even so, under these wide blue skies, a fresh breeze chasing around us, Sussex is still so beautiful. Ropes of translucent bryony berries, hawthorns thick with matt ruby haws, wild roses covered in flask-shaped carnelian hips, but no fungi, because no undisturbed pasture; no foraging except for some kindling.

I've had a nudge from the Sussex Wildlife Trust, must fill in the DEFRA questionnaire at surveymonkey. How do you feel you benefit from the natural environment?

What am I supposed to say to that. I don't care if I benefit or not. I want this beauty to exist for its own reasons, I owe the Downs, they don't owe me a thing.

Ich bin ein piece of the natural environment. I don't have a separate existence.

Which parts of the natural environment matter most to you?

Maybe I'll put TREES, lay off my trees you pedants, which is somewhat a dig at the Wildlife Trust itself, currently gripped by a passion for reverting to the ice age vegetation of this area.

No, I won't.

I Cannot Read The Fiery Letters. . .

Thursday 7th October. Yesterday, just at sunset, a huge weather front crossed our sky in a sweep of marvellous colour. Was that the rain saying, so long for now? This morning, crisp and fair.

Hey, a letter from Speranza. What can it be? A response to an Amnesty International Action? I don't think Strasbourg was on any of my recent recipient-lists. No, it's an invitation to write for an anthology, something sf or fantasy, for young people. (For free, I hasten to add, it's a proper project, no snouts in the trough here). Has to be somehow related to one of the Human Rights Convention articles relating to children; the anthology being published under the umbrella of a programme titled, with my favourite Futuristic Utopian Megastate's usual elegant concision "Building A Europe For And With Children".

Anyway, it sounds okay to me and I've signed up. If I write a story that gets accepted, I'll let you know.

I have just spent about half an hour patiently trying to post a comment on the Aqueduct Press blog. Anyone with any sense would have thought, a glitch: quit and started again later, but I'm used to attempting these trials about a zillion times before I succeed so I kept on and on, ghryleebs, mmmgsheba, cantelsin. . .

Wrong every time. I am hopeless. Sumbitted it to the human moderator instead.

Cuticle Damage at the Contemporary Music Ensemble

Tuesday 5th October, grey skies, mild, a fine drizzle. Looks like bountiful autumn has been and gone, for now. I actively like walking over the downs in wet wild October weather, but looking out of this window at the draggled colourless garden, I can only long for spring.

30th September, up to Blackheath Halls for a reprise that might well become an institution, the second Trinity Contemporary Music Ensemble Concert. Our principal motivation of course the pianists, Gabriel Jones and Lydia Aoki, but the music grows on you. Met Gabriel at the station and took him for a quick Italian at Zero Degrees, (it's on the Greenwich Meridian see, comes highly reccommended). See your child, feed your child, even if your child is forty seven and a High Court Judge, it's a law of nature. G jnr's sober dandy ensemble (Gabriel with cufflinks!) somewhat marred by a seen better days black woolly jumper with raggedy cuffs: it's a trick of the trade, saves the sides of the hands from getting bruised purple when piano abuse is called for; he proudly showed us the blackened and bloody cuticles caused by violent glissando work. What did I like? (what do i remember?). I liked husk, paul newland, with the countdown screens and all the spaces inbetween (and a slight technical hitch I'm afraid I took for part of the score, until the pianist got restive). The Hammerhawk stephen montague, that's the violent one, Blond Afrodite. . . Gregory Rose, and The Dream Cat, Deirdre Gribbin, the deceptively conventional chamber piece. The student pieces just went by too fast, but I remember Double Rainbow, because of the daft youtube video association, and Anthropogenic was clever, it's carbon emissions, see, the gases translated into chords, Contemporary Music is full of puns.

And then, the next night, a biography of Vaughan Williams turned up on the telly. What a shifty great amorous old hearth rug, what a giant human badger he was. . .and in the middle of it suddenly found myself listening to the roots of what I'd heard at Blackheath Halls in a piece of music I've known all my life, and never thought remotely weird or "challenging", how could I? It was a favourite with my parents. But it is.

I think they really know where they're coming from, those Trinity Contemporary Music people.

And then, the night after that, it was an Eighties reunion, in the upper room at what used to be The Richmond, down in Brighton by the sea, & Dinah & I were dancing, the sole representatives of the old front row, to The Jungle and This Colour. It never rains but it pours.

The French Have A Word For It/The Difficult Utopia

Wednesday September 29th, damp morning, a mild interval in a chilly start to the autumn, grey skies, spider webs.

Grey skies, revision work, conversations with Gabriel, failure to find the Brown Card Folder, left by the grand piano, it should be obvious, no it isn't! Actually, it isn't anywhere, and I'm, far too vulnerable to these excuses to leave my desk. What is the man from the bank of England really saying to "savers"? He's saying, mate, you can save up for your funeral expenses if you like, but possibly you have not noticed, you are poor. Only rich people are supposed to be able to live on the income from accumulated capital. The poor are many, the rich are few, that's the arrangement, always has been: this is not a moral issue. There was a bit of a glitch for a few decades, normal services have been resumed. Get used to it.

Definitely a science fiction issue. Possibility of a Movement! But a U-turn will first be necessary.

I like the french word for it, decroissance. Sounds like a real word, unlike that "degrowth". But of course it's a promise of hurt; and hurt for the poor, first and worst, same as most kinds of trouble. Ideally, decroissance doesn't mean no public health, no sewage treatment, no road repairs, no education except for the elite. What it has to mean, no matter how fair the distribution of wealth, is putting the brakes on the global culture of stuff-accumulation, and that's obviously the most painful idea in the world, to the devotees, both the ignorant many and the greedy few. No more the everlasting new phone, new car, new washing machine.

What on earth's Stephen Fry going to do? (that's the "lets go and visit all the lovely animals on the brink of extinction" presenter, who confessed he can't possibly resist yet another latest new phone) Or any other gadget-greedy soi-disant liberal?

See how that term "ideally", meaning, "if things go well", immediately made you think "this isn't going to happen"?

Ah, well. Yesterday Peter saw a kingfisher, flash of blue on the stream that runs through the old railway land by his college. That's good luck. Also, I saw a frog in the soi-disant wildlife pool:that's minor good luck too, at this time of year. Something good will happen.

Follow this link for bar-to-bar's treatment of Gwyneth Jones. Perhaps the White Queen would have preferred a meeting of equals in a cosy alcohol den, but as I feared, it was not to be. In virtuality we meet ourselves as others see us: it can be terrifying.

None of the effects you are about to experience are faked. Tibor Moricz is an inteviewer like no other, and a very brave man!




Tigers are better looking

Friday 24th September, luminous cloud burning off. So far, it's going to be another day of autumn sunshine, no sign of the high winds.

Haha! I've finally found a practical use for those Twitter and Facebook accounts. I can pester people! When NGOs hopefully ask me if they can contact all the people in my email address book, to spread the word on Drop The Debt and the like, I always turn the idea down. It's intrusive, it's chugging, and it would only look like spam. But Facebook and Twitter, that's different.

Last Saturday, harvest foraging from Robertsbridge to Bodiam, retracing a springtime walk we made when David & Ruth &co were staying just over the border, but this time driving to Robertsbridge as the Kent trains are being routed via Hayward's Heath at weekends, and that's a Ryanjourney. Why do the papers and the BBC always say there's "a bumper crop" of nuts and berries? It'd be a strange September if the hedges weren't full of sloes (we picked our share) and blackberries, hips and haws and crab-apples. Actually, this year the apples have been disappointing so far; sharp and late. An old pasture thick with dark green fairy rings delayed us, plentiful supplies of field mushrooms. I hoped for boletus, "edible and delicious" in the heathy woodland, but found only interesting non-edible species. On the way back, despite the helpful due west sunset arrangement of the equinox, and a high-sailing three-quarter moon, we got a little lost. The bowl on the right holds specimens of a beautiful Amanita, called The Blusher (not eaten) picked in Wennow Wood in deep twiglight. The other handsome devil, probably an Agaricus, I couldn't positively identify, except it wasn't as I'd hoped a Parasol variant, so we didn't eat that one either. I'm not careless with my fungi (famous last words).

What luxury to be lost in a wood on the Kent Sussex border in deep twilight. To find your way out to a lane, and walk down the hill to the river in the moonlight, pale strawbales in the glittering shorn fields; to the convivial lights of a roadside village pub, and pass like ghosts. . .

Animal Alterity I have to take issue with Sherryl Vint over the Eqba's righteous cleansing operation on planet Earth. Far as I can tell, if you invent imaginary aliens who are going to hygenically dispose of 6billion surplus humans for you at a stroke, that is a sentimental solution. How about if you imagine the Extreme Greens as people like us, taking the job on? Six billion corpses, mm. That's quite a stink.

On the other hand, I have never read anything by Karen Traviss. She fit the old !SFnal Tomboy! profile so exactly, I thought I already knew her work well. . . I should give her a try, but clearly you don't start with Judge.

And last night (finally getting there) we watched the Tigers In Bhutan show. How lovely it was, and how thrilling. All those different big cats! And the pika, and the dried medicinal caterpillar with fungus growing out of its head. But I was afraid. Don't tell! I kept thinking. Don't tell! I just hope none of those dxxxxd Traditional Medicine tycoons were paying too much attention.

The Sword, The Mirror and the Jewel

Tuesday September 14th, cool morning, herring gulls crying, grey skies thick with rain.

I used to think the Studio Ghibli movies were stateless, set in some Cloud Cuckoo land, a Japanese cartoon version of the Fairytale Mediaeval Europe invented by Disney. Then I saw Tokyo Story, a grim and rather repellent Great Movie by Kurosawa, and there was Miyasaki's lost country, right there: the crooked roofs, the jumbled little streets, the causewayed paths between the rice paddies, a homely countryside close by the tumbling haphazard low-rise warren of the industrial city. (reminding me very much of the outskirts of Manchester, when I was a child myself).

I used to think Zelda and Final Fantasy were Stateless fantasies, the seemingly bizarre and arbitrary cod-mediaeval features the product of random, deracinated game-developers' imaginations. Now I know different, and I've just been reminded how far from rootless they are, these landscapes, these eternal pilgrimages from shrine to shrine (or dungeon!); these treasures that we must obtain, at lengthy cost. I'm reading The Confessions of Lady Nijo, an old paperback I picked up on the South Bank bookstalls, on my birthday trip to London, in February. I have a small collection of Heian ladies' writing, but though this one was new to me, I didn't rate it at first glance, just bought it on reflex: it was a late work, two hundred years after Genji, and written (it says here) with the explicit purpose of restoring the lady's family fortunes. Derivative, I thought. Bound to be dilute, formulaic and feeble. I was completely wrong. It's true, Genji keeps coming up in the first three books. Parties are staged to recreate episodes in the incomparable (fictional!) Genji's court life. Courtiers, and court ladies like Nijo, imitate the poems, the actions, the emotions of Murasaki Shikibu's characters. Of course I don't know how much of this is part of Nijo's cunning plan to ride on the classic writer's trailing sleeves, and how much Genjification really happened. It's weirdly modern, though. Then comes the best bit. "Nijo", concubine from childhood to one retired emperor (the indulgent GoFukakusa, who has never really objected to the girl having private lovers on the side), is in a dire predicament over Gofukakusa's conviction that she's having a clandestine affair with another retired emperor, Gofukakusa's brother-enemy. She's lost her protector, and the knives are out at court. You know what, she decides. I'm sick of it all anyway: and sets out one morning, dressed as a Buddhist nun, on a life of pilgrimage. Here's the passage, that prompted this post.

"A sacred mirror made by a god to reflect the image of the sun goddess was enshrined at Koasakuma. It is said that it was once stolen and dropped into deep water. When it was revovered and presented at the shrine, the goddess spoke through an oracle: "I have vowed to save all living things, even the fishes in the boundless sea". Then, by its own power, the mirror vanished from the shrine and reappeared on the top of a rock, beside which grew a lone cherry tree. At high tide the mirror lodged in the top of the tree; at low tide it remained on the rock. . . " Confessions of Lady Nijo, tr Karen Brazell

Nah, it's probably impossible to convey the little thrill of pleasure those words, connecting me to the greater half of Zelda's cultural sources, give me. Never mind

Now I want to see Top Girls, the Caryl Churchill play in which Nijo is a character. Except I think she's a fount of mature wisdom in the play, whereas I just met an engagingly fallible human being.

Speaking of mature wisdom, here's the latest from bar to bar, featuring that grand old man of hellish anarchy and angelic mayhem, Hal Duncan


*Ouch. I just imagined a Lady Nijo tv series, probably hosted by Julia Bradbury, a poetic walking tour (with sea voyages) around Japan. Awful thought!

Oh well, what do I know. Maybe that literary pilgrimage has been big in Japan for decades. The Lady Nijo Trail.