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The Damage and The Lies

Friday 4th February, grey quiet day, fairly mild. Happy New Year.

As the Chilcot inquiry sneaks to an end, here's another stunning injustice that ought to be addressed:

Maude Casey, who wrote that first letter, is a friend of mine, a writer and an activist. Here's what she said to me in an email, reminding me that things are even worse than they look at first glance:

"The further point is that those four innocent young men (one was only 15 at the time of his arrest) would not now, in 2011, be given the jury trial which was their right in 2005. Today the case would be held in a secret commission in which even their barristers would not be allowed to see the evidence against them, and no doubt they would be dispatched to prison for life.

The jury foreman at their trial, Laurence Archer, has just published a book about the whole sorry affair. It has a foreward by Michael Mansfield, whose quiet and patient cross examination of the manager of Porton Down was instrumentental in revealing the chilling lie at the heart of this case."

Compare that female tv journalist who quit her job in Cairo yesterday, because the tv coverage was telling lies, she could see the very different scene that was unfolding out of her windows, but the public lies were becoming public truth.

For more on the Ricin prisoners and their fate, follow this link:

& please consider writing to your MP or to Kenneth Clarke at the Ministry of Justice (or both) raising the issue and appealing against this treatment.

Not at all connected, but I also have a link from Clarion for you. The estimable Clarion Foundation workshops are still looking for students, so if you thought it was too late, it isn't. Check it out and see if you would benefit. As you know, these gruelling immersion courses have been, and continue to be, a positive hotbed for future stars of sf and fantasy.

Hope And Promise

Candlemas, Wednesday 2nd Feb: low sky, mist and dropping rain clearing, grey squirrel looking exactly like a giant furry caterpillar, head down at the tip of a perilous twig stealing birdfood from a coconut shell. Robin blackbird thrush hedge-sparrow wren, blackcap garden warbler, great tit, blue tit, goldcrest (only one, this winter so far) goldfinches, greenfinches, starlings. Not counting jackdaws street pigeons wood pigeons (fat iridescent throated caterpillars, hoovering up the berries from a matted clump of ivy) and collared doves. . . I did not take part in the RSPB garden birds weekend survey, I think people with cats that go outside are barred, but I'm amazed at the variety of birds managing to survive in our gardens, despite the cats, the tree rats and the ground rats. They keep their wits about them and take advantage of being able to fly, I suppose.

I wish I wasn't old enough to have seen flowers tucked in gun turrets before now. I wish I couldn't remember 1979 (Iran, fall of the Shah), and 1991, (darkness at dawn for Russia). Not to mention what happened to the original Spirit Of Eighty Nine. Modern History is such a tissue of cliches! Demonstrations good. No major political reform can be achieved without the support of dedicated, single-issue Non Violent Direct Action. Mass Market bad. But when the millions on millions pour out into the streets,it will be the most power-hungry of the disparate groups, and therefore the most ruthless and oppressive, that leaps to fill the power-vacuum. Knowing what's all too likely to follow, would I have been out in Tahrir Square, decorously headscarved and shouting for joy? Of course I would. There's always a first time.

Actually my money's on Mubarak hanging on, like Mugabe. We're in a blocking system.

Watching: Splice, last night. (Warning, Spoilers) Lunatic nerd gender-essentialist Canadians descend into hell. I hoped this would be Blood Music by David Cronenberg but it ended up being Okay-not-great verging on absurdly predictable. The moment when two naked mole-ratoid synthetic lifeforms decide to go for each other in a territorial battle, and corporate Big Pharma gets engulfed in a wave of blood, goop and tank water; that was fun. The moment when doe-eyed Clive returns to child-abuse survivor Elsa, having been caught getting sexually active with the pubertal (but chronologically about three months old) ersatz little girl they made. And he's like "What are you looking like that for? Okay, I raped a toddler. So? It's not like I contaminated the polymerase chain reaction or anything" had a certain crazy charm. Everything after that point was desperately ho-hum. Still, we got those cool, Guillermo de Toro bouncy satyr legs. Compares extremely poorly with Species, 1995 "trashy" treatment of the same material (except the dodgy DNA is from ET, not lab built); where the reproductively predatory transgenic humanoid female definitely gets out more, and does not have to become male before she gains a voice, achieves her aim, and becomes really powerful.

Reading: The Bone Woman, Clea Koff Gripping. The details of how you unearth incontrovertible evidence of a genocide are relentless, the viewpoint is personal. I picked up this book because I thought I don't know enough. I don't know enough about Burundi, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo: about the supersized crime, genocide, which now seems to have defined the twentieth century, from first to last. The Bone Woman isn't about causes, but I'm learning. Don't read this if you prefer a tear-jerker. It isn't a tear-jerker, it's an account of the gritty, smelly everyday grind involved in forensic proof, when murder has been committed on such a scale. The squabbles, the discomforts, the grumbles about the UN (that cranky, stumbling old mothership). And the stubborn, unsentimental good will of some amazing people determined to bring the victims of genocide to light; to bring them home.

Les Aiguilles Rouges take the keynote photo spot, because it's that time of the year. No matter what happens to the weather from now on, the light has turned. Twigs and trees have begun to glow, birds have begun to sing and winter is on the downslope. There are plans to be made, and my plan is that I'm going to walk into that picture, this July.

The Universe Of Things

My second story collection from The Aqueduct Press was published at the beginning of this month, but distribution has been delayed (due to the extreme weather). My copies reached me yesterday. I'm not totally sure about the weighty introduction I got this time, I may prefer the one in Grazing The Long Acre , but I still love the cover image. Many thanks to Kath Wilham for following my suggestion up and sourcing it, plus many thanks to CERN Educational, for letting us use it.

Anyway, same as I did for The Buonarotti Quartet: the stories.
(warning: this is a bit long)

The Universe Of Things, Storynotes

In The Forest Of The Queen: The Monsec American Monument is a real place. The forest in the story is a real place, and cropped for firewood by the commune, just as described. We drove into it, we left our car at a meeting of green, smoothly mown, thickly tree-bordered tracks; just as described. We walked into the trees, and were walking over ground that was hopping with tiny dark-skinned frogs. Never seen so many little frogs. We got a little lost, and that felt a little strange: we found ourselves again, and there was (but this was at a different forest margin) an old French forester who said “You can go in, but you may not come out”. Back in the car, for a while it was touch and go: so many crossing trails, and surely far more trees than we’d passed on the way in. We knew we’d escaped when we reached the cottage converted into a bat refuge, but I wondered if maybe everything had changed; if this was really the same world as we’d left. The rest is fiction.

I’ve sought these liminal, uncertain experiences all my life. The most developed example I’ve written up as fiction is a novel called Kairos. It’s that Arthur Machen feeling, it’s what the term numinous actually means, and you should ask my brother David about it.

Total Internal Reflection. An early try out for the tech-and-drug mediated Grail idea.

Red Sonja And Lessingham In Dreamland. It’s about Red Sonja, ie Brigitte Nielson (a favourite movie). It’s about Lessingham, as in the heroic Renaissance Fantasies of Eric Rucker Eddison (who shared private tutors with Arthur Ransome as a boy, but I’m sure you knew that). Someone once told me that Eddison fans in the US found it “very offensive”. I'm truly sorry they feel that way, I meant no harm, I'm an Eddision fan, I even admire Mistress of Mistresses, which some might say proves my dedication. When my son was a little boy he was very, very keen on the Ballantine cover of The Worm Ouroboros and insisted I read it to him. I warned him, but he persisted, so I did. Didn't miss a word. Red Sonja is mainly supposed to be funny, with a sneak-out ending that finally refuses to condemn the dubious escapism fans, but I think its popularity rests on the fact that it is, inevitably, also mildly porny. Probably the most anthologised Gwyneth Jones story.

The Universe Of Things This one used to be called "The Mechanic", which may have been a better title. My poor mechanic gets into a panic, imagining he's a helpless component in a pumping, squirting, squishy Great Big Machine. When he stops frightening himself and calms down, he "hears" the alien's car say "Thank you". I take that to be a fleeting, genuine insight into how it feels to be submerged, encompassed by the living world, like an Aleutian: without being terrified. The key is kind-ness (as in that Oxfam tag, be humankind); even in our world held to be the root of all altruism. Ah, well. The city is Liverpool, by the way. Don’t know if I mentioned that in the narrative.

Blue Clay Blues. A Johnny Guglioli story. At the time of writing White Queen, I worked up a future USA that didn’t seem remotely likely, just for the hell of it, and in response to the Cyberpunk-Eighties version of near-future Europe. I knew I didn’t know anything like enough about the US to work up a likely future, so I didn’t try. Ironically, apparently, it stands up. I wrote this story because I wanted to use the lines “Is that a gun in your pocket?” “No, it’s a spare diaper.”

Grazing The Long Acre Somehow this got into one of Steve Jones’s horror anthologies. I don’t know how, pure kindness to Gwyneth on Steve’s part, most likely. This is not a horror story, this is a Polish story. It is not a mundane story either: it is obviously and very Polishly a story about an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Virgin of Czestochowa in fact. I wondered what that tricky concept The Immaculate Conception would look like, to a part-Jewish American girl who was trying to be Lauren Bacall in To Have And Have Not, and this is the result. The working girls on the E75 are real, or they were. Grazing has been translated into Polish, and published in Nowa Fantastyka, and I’m pleased about that.

Collision. I signed up to write a story for Geoff Ryman’s anthology When It Changed. The main attraction was that I would be shadowing a scientist, the way I shadowed Dr Jane Davies for Life, the way I’ve sneaked myself into a few real world scientific/academic conferences, over the years. It turned out that I couldn’t visit my scientist, who had promised to let me see a real (medical) particle accelerator roaring in its cage, as the trip would be too expensive. Then it turned out that Geoff, which through lack of paying attention I hadn’t known, was not just using a title that happened to sound the same, he was actually referencing the iconic Joanna Russ, seventies-feminism ur-text “When It Changed”, and saying his Scientific Revolutions anthology was inspired by that story. Geoff, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. The other contributors are free to do what they like: me, I'm going to have to write something about a feminist/post-gendered Utopia under threat from the Return Of The Sex-Role Dinosaur Police. And time was running out. So “Collision” was a bit of a scrambled egg, but in the end I sort of liked the result. Plus I loved “meeting” Dr Kai Hock (Dr Fortune) digitally. He’s a star. Also loved finding out about wake fields & all that from his online powerpoints.

One Of Sandy’s Dreams Sandy Brize is a character from Kairos.

Gravegoods The first properly scifi story I ever wrote (and the last, until "The Fulcrum", and the rest of the Buonarotti set); the first I ever got published, and the ur-form of the means of faster than light travel later to be known as a Buonarotti Transit. I took it to my second UK Milford week, in 1986. The delightful alien planet is Madeira.

La Cenerentola Won the BSFA short story award, in 1999 I think it was, which was a very pleasant surprise. A love song to the summers of the nineties, when I travelled (on a less well-heeled scale) very much the way Thea and Suze and Bobbi travel, around the sunbaked Mediterranean. Isn’t it interesting to look back, and see a world where the danger of having everything seemed like a real threat. The night at L’Ecureuil, with the flamenco guitar, and the mayor with her little shoes, is taken from life. Also the hangover.

Grandmother’s Footsteps. This was written for an anthology about haunted houses, but the haunted house seems almost incidental now. I believe I was writing at the time of a grim chemical pollution discovery in the UK (Was it Lindane? That wood treating stuff?). The horrible revelation that your child is doomed to a short life in pain, because you painted the barn with something you didn’t know was deadly... and this segues, naturally, if you’re writing a horror story, into the awful suspicion that everything, every greedy thoughtless thing your civilisation ever did to the world, everything that made you prosperous, is going to turn around and savage your babies. That's when you start being haunted by yourself. An existential yuppie nightmare.

The Earlier Crossing This was a dream, I dreamed it, word for word. So to speak. I was working with the Continuing Education Department at our local University (late lamented, it’s been axed), encouraging ordinary folk to do some creative writing, the result was to be a book, and everybody involved had to pitch something in.

The Eastern Succession Now where is this set? I think it’s set on the slopes of Mount Bromo, circa 1978, although there’s no active volcano on the summit above “Temple Pass” in the story. I recognise the town; I remember staying in that town, in a wooden-walled room, the pillows and sheets on the bed crusted with embroidery, that left patterns on my ears. It’s central Java anyway, and Bu Awan is Mount Merapi, but the bas-reliefs as described are in a temple near Solo. Endang was the name of someone we met, a dance student, she was a girl, but in Javanese boy/girl names aren’t exclusive. When I first drafted Divine Endurance, while living in Singapore, I went on to write several “Derveet and the gang” stories. DE the novel is as stylised as Javanese dance-drama. The emotions are real and intense, everything else is stage: same as European style ballet, in fact. I wanted that effect but I thought I'd also like to have the characters in their street clothes, and find out what really happened to the men and boys. I wasn't satisfied with the "Derveet" stories and discarded most of them. I thought this was more successful, and I took it along to my first UK Milford. Another one, much altered and with Endang brought in as a character, finally became the novel called Flowerdust

On Mount Bromo I met, and became short-term dear friends with, fully adult human beings, men and women, the top of whose heads barely came to my collarbone, and I’m 162cm. I think of those “hobbits” on Flores, and I think they didn’t entirely die out.

The Thief The Princess And The Cartesian Circle. From the collection “Seven Tales And A Fable”, published by Steve Pasechnik (of the late lamented Edgewood Press) in 1996. My fractured fairytales (though they were often taken out of the box, revised and some of them published separately over the years between), date back to my undergraduate days at Sussex University. The Thief is not a personal favourite. I prefer “The Snow Apples”, an early try-out for a character who would become Cho, the “innocent, perfect and incorruptible” metagenetic gynoid. Or “Laiken Langstrand”, if only because the lanky blue-eyed blond friend who inspired it is dead now. But it’s possibly the most interesting and most hard-hitting. I was working with fairytales, bringing them into collision with the real world, seeing what interesting fractures might develop, and I’m a long time admirer of I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, by Hannah Gordon (alternate title of another of the stories). In the real world, a young woman who believes she’s a magic princess, suffering under an evil enchantment, probably has mental health problems. The passage where Jennifer experiences a psychiatric hospital as a wild wood, and a corrupt, sexually abusive doctor as a “woodcutter” her “magic” may easily destroy, is closely related to Gordon’s description of how the psychotic yet beloved world of “Yr” interpenetrates the real, in her schizophrenic protagonist’s perception. "Sectioned" is UK shorthand for being compulsorily committed to a psychiatric institution. The Descartes part is not fiction, and I'd hesitate to call it philosophy: that’s me, at nineteen, wrestling with an angel.

Identifying The Object. A Johnny and Braemar story, narrated by a somewhat holier than thou observer. This story is a mash-up. I had never been to West Africa when I wrote it. The incident at the heart, the supposed alien craft splash-down site, actually happened in Madeira, it was one of those liminal experiences. Of course what we found was the spoor of a flash flood. It was flood water that had created the huge, weird, circular depression paved in red clay, flood water that had brought down the trees all around. But for a moment or two, well, we were on the brink... The original African connection was a terrific dubious escapism romance called The Golden Centipede, by Louise Gerard (1910). When I finally reached West Africa in 1995 (expedition to climb Mt Cameroon) I was stunned to find it was exactly the place Gerard describes. I thought she’d made it all up. The white lilies that grow in the river mud! The flowery natural “gardens”, up in the highlands! The weird peaks! Bit short on wildlife these days, but you can’t have everything. I was trying to work out something about colonialism, and how does it happen? How do the gold empires vanish? In this story Braemar and Johnny, natives of the planet about to be colonised, themselves about to become inferior beings, decide (she decides) to go down (pre-emptively) fighting. If it was as simple as that, I would sign up myself. But Anna thinks it is not.

Blue Valentine: Why I prefer thrillers

Wednesday 19th January, white roofs, frosty gardens, Venus bright and high at 7am. After a lengthy interval of heavy rain, mist and cloud, the cold has returned for a while.

Suckered into going to see Blue Valentine at The Duke's last night, because Michelle Williams was so good in Winter's Bone, and by accidental viewing of a tv movie "critic" programme, (not really, more just advertising). The gushing critical acclaim already online for this "painful, exquisite" movie raises a wry shake of the head. I have the perceptions of a different generation, a different social consciousness: I saw no bittersweet romance . . I thought Blue Valentine was pretty good.This is exactly how it happens. The lost dog, the cruel loss of the animal-person who was secretly holding a very shaky situation together, precipitates crisis. Long ago, when they were young, a clever girl from a poor background, in a routinely abusive family situation, sadly bereft of emotional support, was touched by the inventive, hollow routines of a self-centred emotional parasite (yes! It's Woody Allen come again!): she turned to him in her trouble, and he, intoxicated by his own make-believe, made the grand gesture. Now they're older, they've become themselves, as an adult the hollow man is unendurable: there's a wonderful little girl, but it's all going to hell.

Michelle Williams was terrific. Maybe her part in the two-hander was just easier, but for me it was a shame that her partner, played by Ryan Gosling, came over as terminally dislikeable, and for me almost unwatchable (which is different and much worse). On that modern world scale of snog, marry, avoid, the winsome "Dean" belongs, from the start, at the "run away screaming" end of the spectrum. Young girls are gullible, it's okay that "Cindy" fell for him. It's just what she would do, especially considering Dean's rival for her affections is a violent bully like her Dad. It would have been masses better if "Dean" had won my sympathy.

I don't like movies that set out to be soft-centred, I like grit. But I prefer gritty thrillers. In a thriller, if you don't get on with the human drama, there's always the story. In a human drama, if you don't like the people, it's no fun at all trying to guess what's going to happen.

What's Happening In Egypt

Tuesday 11th January, a gloomy mild grey afternoon. Here's a link from last week's news, better for morale than the news from Arizona, anyway, where Common Dreams tells me the relaxed gun laws are about to become MORE relaxed. Who would have figured that could happen?

And another Common Dreams link, equally morale-boosting.

Cat tragedy averted: did you know pampas grass can cause your cat to retch blood, cower in a shuddering heap, foam at the mouth and show every sign of being in desperate trouble? It's the sneaky two-way finish, smooth going down when they swallow a piece, viciously abrasive when they try to sick it up again, the way cats love to do. Last night we were facing a tragic bill for removal under general anaesthetic (plus nobody wants to put a small animal under general anaesthetic, it's always scary), but this morning we were off the hook, Milo had managed to rid himself of the problem, and the pampas grass is uprooted and bagged to be taken to the tip.

Are we all still here? Yes, I think so. Better get on with the year then.

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.


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.