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Messolonghi: A History Of Ideas

Roumeli Greece:2013 Another day, almost our last day in Greece, in the Sacred City of Messolonghi, Peter finally rebelled. He'd had enough of my latest wild goose chase, wanted to know why we had to stop for ten minutes, let alone spend the night, in this dump, flat as a pancake, sickly, glaring hot, unfriendly, nothing to see but a dreary great lagoon with litter bobbing at the shore; totally devoid of attractive features... I blame myself. To me it was so obvious that Messolonghi had to feature on the Roumeli tour, I'd forgotten to explain what we were doing. I'd also forgotten to give my patient companion proper warning that even I wasn't expecting to like the place, and he probably was not going to like it either. Maybe I'd been hoping that Messolonghi would beat the critics, but August is not its best month. This flat modern town is the reverse of picturesque, the downtown area is the only place on our whole trip where I felt a foreign woman should be uneasy alone, and there was a cockroach in the shower. Okay, the roach was dead, always the best kind, but even so...

Why are we here?

Good question...

Philip of Macedon's blitzkreig empire didn't last long. Philip got assassinated. Alexander went off on his own astonishing go for it until you got no armies left World Domination game, and basically never came back. The generals scrapped, the chain of command was broken, democracy had died and (for all democracy's many awful faults) permanent warfare proved an inefficient substitute: Greece ceased to be a great power. Macedonian rule had a late revival under Philip V, but then he unwisely backed Carthage against Rome. Things fell apart again, and the Romans, to cut a long story short, just walked in the back door as soon as they had a free moment (168 BCE).

The Greeks had huge cultural influence as Roman citizens. They went on doing pretty well in the time we call the Dark Ages, through the collapse of the Western Empire and for hundreds of years after that; off on their own prosperous and dazzling Byzantine track. But the Byzantine empire never recovered from the debacle of the Fourth Crusade. In 1453, Byzantium (aka Constantinople aka eventually Istanbul) fell to the Ottoman Turks. Arabic, Byzantine and nascent Western European scholars had been scouring lost libraries and inacessible lamasaries for shards of the old Greek magic since the fall of Rome, and piecing the fragments together. At the time when a new world civilisation, that endures, just barely, even to the present day, was rising from those magic shards, Greece itself fell off the map, and vanished.

There'd been other revolts, over the centuries. The War of Independence (1821) was different. The Ottoman Empire was dying, rotted from within. Primed by the success of (allegedly) egalitarian, idealistic revolutions in France and in the American colonies, the world was watching. Philhellenes of many lands, thrilled at the prospect of rescuing the Cradle of Civilisation, rushed to the barricades. Delacroix painted scenes of lightly draped, glamour-model carnage. George Gordon, Lord Byron, the famous poet, who'd found good copy and had a wonderful time around here, on his Grand Tour, (as Peter & I had seen memorialised, in Ali Pasha's citadel in Ioannina), offered his services. He arrived at Messolonghi, the rebel HQ, in January 1824, extravagently equipped with weapons, money, scarlet uniforms and gold braid. He was welcomed equally extravagently and set his considerable gifts to work, trying to organise some decisive action. He did not succeed. The freedom fighters were vain, venal, and quarrelsome as a sack of cats. The weather was awful, living conditions sodden and squalid. At just turned 36 Byron was not a young man (worn out by too much fun). He caught a fever and died, within a hundred days of his arrival, on 24th April. His intervention, and his death, had considerable effect on world opinion, and in Greece he is still regarded as a national hero. In 1827 the Greeks regained their independence: some would say for the first time since Cheronaea.

But that's only half the story, because I wasn't drawn to the idea, the romance of Greece, directly. I was never in that league. It's all second hand, a bag of scraps bequeathed to me by nineteen and eighteenth century schoolboys (and their sisters, who fed on the crumbs from that table), raised on those magic shards. We're here because the spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair, because Heracles wore the intolerable shirt of flame, that human power cannot remove...; because the real hero of Marathon deserved something better than fame, Name not the clown with these... because Keats hungered for "Tempe and the vales of Arcady", places that for him, as for me, lived entirely in the imagination... Cavafy's in there too, of course. The echoes and tags a writer follows, wanting to know the story. The Romantics and their interesting times, from whence I date my formation as a writer, when the world turned upside down...

And if it hadn't, I wouldn't be here. (I mean, someone like me just would not exist.)

At Messolonghi, with Byron (I've never rated his best-selling major works, but maybe I'll give Harold and Juan another look), the trails meet.

So, anyway, we visited the Byron room in the War of Independence museum in the Town Hall: inspected the plan of the great siege-battle and admired the miniature cricket bat signed by a Notts County team; among other curious treasures. We made peace, walking in the quiet green Garden of Heroes, where the Philhellenes are buried, and found ourselves a better hotel. I think the naked young girl on Markos Botsaris's equivocal monument is meant to be Liberty? She's beautiful, anyway, and reminds me somehow of Neolithic Cycladean statuettes. If you ever visit Messolonghi, after I've talked it up so splendidly, go in Spring or Autumn. Check out the birdwatching and the mediaeval painted cave-chapels, and stay at the Liberty, opposite the Garden. It's a bit blockhouse-looking and drab, but fine indoors.

Pomegranate Seeds

That's Dionysios riding on the panther, a mosaic from Pella, a reminder of a different Greece. We had a phrasebook, never opened it; except for me to look up words I wanted in the dictionary, and find that they weren't there. Really, English is all you need to get by. On the last drive I had a look inside, and found young British tourism of the early 21st century lovingly enshrined.

I'm very drunk, please could you get me a taxi?

Would you like to have sex?

I'm going to be sick!

So many graves. Back in Ioannina, on the nameless island in lake Pamvotida, I'd bought a "silver" pomegranate for eight euros. As you probably know, Demeter got her daughter back in the end, but Persephone, the Maiden, she who destroys the light by leaving us, has ever afterwards had to spend half the year in Hades, because she ate a handful of pomegranate seeds there. I didn't realise it at the time, but this symbol of life in death and death in life came to seem like the ideal souvenir.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Sunday 15th September, four o' clock in the afternoon, the sky's darkening and the branches are tossing, I think the tail of that storm is finally about to arrive. Decisions, Decisions, Decisions, Am I going to return a response to the new Defra consultation on "biodiversity offsetting" (aka, the license to trash law) that can currently be found on "Citizen Space"? I believe I will. I find I'm as suspicious of this pretty-sounding term as I was the first time I heard it, and I seem to be a member of several of the groups who are very quietly being asked to give their opinion. It'll be a chore, but I think I've grasped the basics, and I know where to get help. The RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, and others are providing guidance. If you are interested in this issue, I urge you to give the consultation form a go. How can the government know that woodlands, meadows and little brown birds (whether skylarks or nightingales) have the power to vote, unless a few people take the trouble to tell them so, and keep telling them so, for as long as we can? The Medway Core Strategy link is by way of giving you a taste of the language. Consultation is open now and until November.

Yes, I know that consultations are not meant to give me a voice, they're meant to shut me up. I know that on the day before Cuadrilla was obliged to withdraw its current planning application, for horizontal drilling at Balcombe, the government launched a "consultation" aimed at getting the law that was in the extreme energy lobby's way changed. Just like that. . . But you work with what you have, not what you don't have. I'll still return that response.


Roumeli Greece:2013 We left Guesthouse Euridiki very early on St Paraskevi's day. Goodbye to our hostess, and her quiet husband. Goodbye the cool, hushed lobby with the ranked preserves and the craft goods nobody bought; goodbye Elia's Corner. By ten thirty we'd reached Sacred Dion, at the foot of Mount Olympus. One more Macedonian city, but not an architect designed show-off from the World Domination years, like Pella: a city that just grew, the way proper cities ought, around the national shrines. A lovely, unexpected place. The ruins, mostly Graeco-Roman, first century CE, inhabit a shady wetland, hopping with bright green frogs. The deities, Demeter, Zeus, Afrodite, have been replaced (effigies of effigies) just as they were found: small, not gigantic, presiding over the dragonflies. In the museum where the originals are kept we saw portrait statues of ordinary bourgeois, men and women, neither royal nor divine (that's Rome for you), and a beautiful, remarkably well preserved "hydraulis": water-powered harmonium for public entertainments. The silent movie cinema had not survived.

They'll find a Graeco-Roman tv or a spaceship somewhere around here, one of these days. Or discover it, in a museum drawer, labelled unidentified artefact.

In the car park we reviewed our supplies. The Euridiki boiled eggs were fine, my cheese and honey had been quietly behaving themselves, but Peter's jam had escaped and been scampering about. So we dealt with that, admired the wall tile reproduction of sixteenth century holiday crowds, dancing and swimming and boating in the Vale of Tembe & then back to the road. But we had left the Egnatia, and re-entered the real world. It was hot, the traffic was drastic, the signage outrageously unreliable. No More Mr Nice Motorway! Legendary Tempe, the leaf-fringed gorge where the river Rhinios cuts a pass, celebrated for millenia by poets and scholars, that Keats dreamed of; where Ovid's Daphne lived happily ever after, having escaped from rape by turning into a shrub, was hellish. St Paraskevi, who has a magic roadside spring here, wasn't helping, but I feel that until more of the romantic crags have been razed, and the roadworks completed, this bottleneck is best avoided. Take the long way round.

Volos, the port from which Jason and the Argonauts set out, wasn't much fun either. We bought some famous loukum there, and drifted like ghosts of tourism past, unable to rest or to move on. By the time we'd beaten the interminable mini-hairpins of the ridge-backed peninsula, and struggled up and down the fancy 5km precipitous street, that is the four parishes of Zagora, searching for our guesthouse, I'd forgotten why I ever wanted to visit Greece again, never mind the Pilion (it was centaurs). Or what was supposed to be so d***ed attractive about these cutesy, disgustingly well-heeled villages with their arrogant 4x4 drivers that could turn on a perpendicular sixpence and despised anyone who faltered at the task. . . For the record, I cannot endorse the country walks, but the hospitality we found here was beyond compare, the blackberries around the stony cove at Elipsa were sweet, and the pool under the chapel headland very good for snorkelling.

30th July. At the first petrol station on the road out of Volos we stopped for a decent kafe elleniki, served by a friendly, competent mother and small boy team, and then onward, hugging the coast for safety, down to the Maliakos Gulf. Still hugging the "coast", but with silted up and reclaimed farmland on our left, we found the Thermo part of the legend without any difficulty, soon after skirting Lamia. The "Gates" (Pylae) are no more, of course. This is no longer a narrow strip of land between the cliffs and the sea. The hot springs, where the Spartans of the rearguard (according to legend), bathed and oiled themselves, preparing their bodies for death, were right there by the road, just as The Rough Guide describes. There's a fence, but the gate was open. A medicinal spa building stands near by, but it seemed, on our visit, empty and half-derelict. It was very quiet. Peter declined, he didn't want to smell of sulphur. I stripped off, I was wearing my bikini under my clothes on purpose. I'm afraid I disturbed the three or four Greek bathers (didn't look like tourists, maybe locals, bathing for their health), but I couldn't help it. The rocks in the spring were green with algae, the water hot and bubbly and definitely sulphurous, paradoxically refreshing in the midday heat.

We had slightly more difficulty tracking down the battlefield, until I realised that the Rough Guide assumed we were approaching from the south; from Athens. So we drove on, about a hundred metres, and there they were, two huge and distinctly fascist monuments (if a Latin term may be excused). The Hill of Kolonos, the burial mound that reaches to the stars*, stood across the road. There were two cars in the car park, counting ours. The services complex off in the distance didn't look to be doing much business. Boy-racers had left their aimless tracks across the salt pan at the foot of the hill. Despite the beribboned wreaths** on the monument steps, everything seemed deserted: ancient history trapped in a half-built motorway intersection. We climbed the Hill of Kolonus, paid our respects, and ate our lunch of bread and honey, cheese and boiled eggs, & 2 superb peaches, in a hollow in the spiny-oak scrub; not far from the current version of the tablet that reads Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we lie...

Here I am, I thought. Finally: in the place that has meant so much to me, for forty years or more. Go and tell the Spartans, someone.

Why so much personal meaning? It's a great story, and quite possibly the third day sacrifice of the rearguard here, actually did change the course of that particulat war: allowing the Athenians a little more time to evacuate; giving Themistocles a breathing space and a second chance at that vital naval victory. But how can I know that the good guys even won, at Salamis, after all this time? The Spartans, for instance, were absolute b*****ds when they were at home. Fascist is a polite word for the way they carried on... And the Athenians were no better than they should be. The word Thermopylae means something different to me. It has evolved. It means a poem by Cavafy, that I met when I was an undergraduate, a expatriate Greek's austere, modernist concept of heroism. The sober business of recognising a just cause and sticking to it, even if you know you can't possibly win. Even if you know (as many do forsee, as Cavafy says) that might is sure to triumph in the end.

Honor to those who in their life
Set out and guard Thermopylae.
Never wavering from duty;
just and forthright in all their actions,
though yet with mercy and compassion;
generous when rich, and when
poor, still in small measure generous,
helping again, as they can;
always speaking forth the truth,
yet without malice for the deceitful.

A higher honour indeed is due
when they foresee (as many do)
that Ephialtes will in the end appear,
and the Medes will eventually break through.

C.P.Cavafy trs Evangelos Sachperolou

The next stage was exhausting. We made a mistake, when trying to leave Thermopylae, made another mistake when trying to undo the first, and had to climb all the way up the mountains (the views over the Gulf were stupendous), on a single track road with no turning places. Worse still, when we reached the village of Karia, high up in the sky in the middle of nowhere and dead to the world, there was no way down the other side except via alarming-looking, unsurfaced, dirt tracks. So we turned and drove all the way back to the Thermopylae junction, & saw what we ought to have done at once (its often the way). The roads were good and played no tricks from then on, from Thermopylae to Regini, via Modi and Kato Tithorea. Cheronia (ancient Chaeronea) took us by surprise. It was roasting hot. We bought ice creams from a supermarket man who unpadlocked his freezer for us, and told us the antiquities were just on down the road. We ate our ices, with cold lemonade from a kiosk (best ice I've ever tasted) outside an aestivating cafe, and drove on. Here, in 338 BCE, a hundred and forty years or so after Thermopylae, the dream of the city states, that the Spartans died for, died itself, under the onslaught of Philip of Macedon's ambition (with a little help from his son). What we had come to see was hard to miss: a 6 metre tall white marble lion, raised by Alexander himself, they say, to honour the Theban Band, that army of lovers, who died here "to a man". He probably slaughtered some of them himself, personally, but I'm sure they'd still have appreciated the gesture. Blokes are like that.

Reports differ, maybe some of the lovers survived; maybe the Thebans paid for the lion, and Philip and Alexander just graciously allowed them to honour their dead. But still, lost for centuries, dug up by Ali Pasha (he couldn't get it transported to Ioannina), admired by Byron in its fallen glory, the white lion has been restored, patched together and replaced on its pedestal. It stands in the middle of a green lawn where the Theban Band are buried, surrounded by cypress trees. It's a very nice lion. We liked it a lot. "This is the end of the Philip of Macedon trail," I told Peter. "The end of what he did to Greece, anyway." And we stayed there for a while. Nobody else came by.

*The philosopher Apollonios Tyanefs (1st century CE) was once asked, which is the highest mountain in the world, and he replied: "Kolonos is the highest mountain in the world, because on this mountain law keeping and noble self-sacrifice have put up a monument, which has its base on the earth and reaches the stars".

**I didn't look too closely at the wreaths. I feared they were fresh, and sentiments expressed on those blue and white ribbons might be a little to the right of Nationalist. If you know what I mean.


Roumeli Greece:2013 Vergina is a single work art-show, for the present. The Royal Palace, extensive and tantalising, is closed for refurbishment. All you can see is the tombs. The museum, what a brilliant idea, has been built on site, and a Tumulus mound raised over it: so that you enter, as the funeral processions would have done, via a sloping tunnel; into darkness, glimpsing the ghostly white sunken doors of the houses of the dead.

There are just three royal tombs: the untouched one identified as Philip's, where a woman, possibly one of his wives was also buried, in an antechamber. The one called "the Prince's tomb" (possibly Alexander's son, Alexander IV, who died young), and the so-called "box-shaped grave", where the bones of a man, a woman and a newborn child were found in the plundered chamber. This is the one with the wall-painting I had come to see, a lifesized "Rape of Persephone". There's one more monument, down here in the dark, a massive thing called a Heroon, the shrine of a hero awarded divine status. Presumably Heracles, the legendary ancestor of this royal line.

Wonderful things, wonderful things , as Carter said: and though not on the same scale, more impressive to me than Tutankhamun, because this is a window into a deep past I thought I'd never see, and of a culture closer to home.

It didn't take long to walk around. Here are the famous, fabulously delicate gold wreaths, oak and myrtle. The silver and bronze vessels; the outsize bathing utensils for the funerary rites of a king. The metal parts of a king's dress armour (Philip wasn't a big man, apparently). A solid gold larnax ; funerary container, in which they found the charred fragments of a middle aged man's bones, wrapped in purple. A "queen's diadem". The tiny ivory portrait heads, recognisable as Philip and his son, from a chryselephantine dining couch. The tombs themselves, Philip's with the Doric facade, and the wonderful painted hunting scene above the door. The fascinating doll's house reconstructions: showing exactly what Manolis and his team saw, when they broke in, thirty years ago. The treasure of massive metal, jumbled anyhow; the imperishable gleam of gold.

The Rape of Persephone is a true fresco, executed swiftly on wet plaster, with great freedom and virtuoso skill. The colours seem to be intact, and used sparingly. On the eastern wall, Demeter sits on a rock, as she is described in the Mysteries of Eleusis, exhausted and desolate. To her left, there's the abduction itself. It made the hairs stand on the back of my neck. There is nothing else like this. No other greek painting of this quality and completeness has survived, and yet I've seen that attendant nymph, looking so bewildered and dumbfounded, clutching the veil. She's in the young Cézanne's energetic version of this scene. See her there, off to the left, standing in the water? But why am I amazed? Dynasties rise and fall. A story, an insight as powerful as the Persephone and Demeter myth can leap over dark ages, the smallest detail mysteriously intact.

The video presentation at the end of the tour (not that anyone was guiding us: we were very early, the hall under the tumulus was empty) is a work of art in itself: an account of Manolis and the discovery, and a meditation on the meaning of these secular icons I had just been venerating. Death and memory and forgetting are intimately linked forces. We bury the dead with honour because we love them and fear them; and then later, patiently and lovingly, we dig them up again because we need them. . .

You will find a spring on the left of the halls of Hades, and beside it a white cypress growing. Do not even go near this spring. And you will find another, from the Lake of Memory, flowing forth with cold water. In front of it are guards. You must say, 'I am the child of Gê (Earth) and of starry Ouranos (Heaven); this you yourselves also know. I am dry with thirst and am perishing. Come, give me at once cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.' And they themselves will give you to drink from the divine spring, and then thereafter you will reign with the other heroes From the Orphics, Petelia text, fourth-third century BCE

I'm not really up on Orphic mysteries, but I suppose the first spring is the waters of Lethe & of forgetting.

In the afternoon we walked around the fields, inspected the fatal theatre (all grass grown) and viewed the huge area of the Palace, closed off until at least 2017. Goats rambled, scarlet-skirted grasshoppers leapt onto us. We discussed the Pausanius story, the smoking gun and the grassy knoll and the obvious conclusion one must draw. There was a lot of handwaving at the time, about this poor disturbed young man, unjustly treated by his powerful lover; Philip's bad habit of playing his gorgeous bodyguards off against each other, etc etc. But there was CSI evidence that Pausanius had expected to get away with his crime of passion. That just doesn't make sense. Unless somebody (and there's really only one person who could have done this) had convinced him he'd survive. . . Peter spotted a wayside shrub bearing woody fruits; exactly the same little etched, ochre roundels we'd seen featuring in the funeral wreaths worn by the living, some of them found intact in 2,500 year old funeral debris. I looked it up, later. It's called the Jerusalem Thorn.

The tour buses were arriving as we left.

The next day we took a minor road trip, to ramble around the baked remains of ancient Pella, where Aristotle taught the young Alexander, and see a different range of finds, prosperous everyday luxuries, the people's treasures. Signs are that a very ambitious archaeological reconstruction was planned for this site, but it's all frozen in place now. Sparrows chatter, the shrikes lie in wait for them, blue borage flowers cluster over fallen stone. Closed for refurbishment. And then Edessa, up on the escarpment, the town with the waterfalls running through it. We had a good time there, a very nice lunch at the restaurant under the plane trees, in the sound of the roaring water. It was after dark when we got back to the guesthouse Euridiki. The dogs hurried to check us out: decided we were okay, and licked my hands. We went to Elia's Corner for a tsipouro mezzes supper(a generous tumbler of clear grape brandy, flavoured with anise at your choice, and accompanied by hearty nibbles), and watched the night-time town en fete for the eve of St Paraskevi. Very popular around here, she's depicted with her eyes on a plate (my greek teacher says) because she grants enlightenment; her name means "Friday"*. Later, I lay awake for a long time and listened to the dogs of the plain barking to each other, near and far, around and around; into the endless distance.

*Obscure footnote, I'm certain that this woman called Friday, because she was born on a Friday, (apparently a real and formidable person, even allowing for the fact she probably couldn't do magic and one hopes she didn't have to survive gruesome torture quite so often as reported); whose eyes seemed to follow us around the whole time we were in Greece, is one and the same as the Catholic church's St Lucy, who also lived in the 1st century CE, and also carries her eyes about on a plate, "about whom little is known".

Taking the Via Egnatia to Vergina

Roumeli Greece:2013 When I first planned this tour around the Roumeli, I imagined we'd use public transport: reliving the intimacy and the drama of our tour of Java and Sumatra in 1978. You have to get to know the people, and you have to speak the language, when you're stranded with a bunch of them at a houseless railway junction in black night, in the deepest, darkest Sumatran rainforest, and the scheduled bus doesn't turn up... (Don't try this today. The forest is gone, for one thing). But then I found out what had happened to the KTEL timetables, and then our beach apartment landlady told us there was no bus from our port to Loutsa. She probably had that wrong, but my nerve failed, due to internet dependence and old age. The tour became a road trip, and immediately, always a sucker for buried treasure stories, I wanted to get to Vergina, in far off Central Macedonia*, where in 1977 Manolis Andronikos, found the untouched Macedonian Tombs: Greece's Tutankhamun.

So, we set out from Loutsa and took the Egnatia Ethniki, the big new (2009) national motorway that retraces the route of the Roman Egnatia Way, from the west coast at Igoumenitsa, slashing through swathe after swathe of impenetrable mountain country, right across to the Turkish border. From Loutsa to the Oracle at Dodoni, from Dodoni to rainy Ioannina, Ali Pasha's citadel on the lake; the nameless island on Lake Pamvotida, where we did not eat the sad tank-eels; the friendly Chevalier bar inside the citadel, and the Mythalogi, where we first met tsipouro mezzes. It wasn't pretty going. Roadworks, active and abandoned, sporadic and systemic, scar the green wetland coast from end to end. The Egnatia is flanked by pans of naked red earth and raw sawn-off ends of hillsides: stepped and netted for landscaping that never happened. An immemorial tapestry of stork-haunted villages, towns and countryside destroyed, but someone else's heartbreak, not mine this time. At least after Ioannina things became spectacular, if never elegant, as we tunneled through the Pindhos Mountains in cold driving rain.

A detour southwards from the first kombos after Metsova took us to Kalambaka, where the rock pinnacle Meteora monasteries are. About five hundred years before the Fall of Constantinople, a band of wild monastics formed the notion of replicating the then-trending Pillar Living style of the Syrian Desert in this extraordinary landscape. The pioneer was apparently St Athanasius, riding on the back of an eagle. The labyrinthine Orthodox lamaseries that followed were constructed and supplied by rope and tackle. In living (tourist) memory it was still quite an adventure to get access. Today, fierce and squalid isolation is no more. There are stairways. Custodians take your money, dispense natty monochrome pareos for decency if necessary, and conduct you to the dark, livid, painted sancturaries, every niche and corner teeming with inventive means of execution. The paintings at Ayiou Nikolau Anapafsa, work of a Cretan, a contemporary of El Greco are far and away the best. The tiny 9th century painted cathedral down in the town is worth the lot of them: unless you're just here for the thrill of peering off the edge of a sheer, 100+ metre drop, and imagining you might fall. Not many people stay.Coachloads upon coachloads of devout Russians, Bulgarians, Romanians, process up the precipitous single track road, pour off their buses, climb the stairs, obsessively venerate every icon in sight, pour back onto their buses and do the same at the next lamasery along. At 3 euros a pop, this operation must be a regular goldmine.

The pinnacles are really giant boulders, heavy-shouldered smooth sea monsters, standing in the air. They look their best from the village of Kastraki at their feet; in twilight, or in starlight. You can clamber over the lower ones, which we did; or go hiking around them, but it wouldn't be much fun in July.

Next day we were back on the Egnatia. In ways it was rather horrible, the great road so empty, the mountains and forests so desolate, the sidings so ugly, no services offering intriguing pitstops, nothing to do but eat distance; demolishing a journey of weeks in an afternoon. Zoom. If a Hyundai Atos can be said to zoom... The Deer warning signs turned into Bear warning signs, the forest dissolved into bleak parched upland, we had started to lose height: fantastically endless views of the Thracian plain opening up below. We made one halt to eat Ioannina bougatsa at a scruffy wooden pagoda by a roadside spring; a corner-boys' old leather car seat for extra seating. A small, motley-attired group appeared out of nowhere in this emptiness, looking slightly sinister (bet we did too), and reminding me of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. But all they did was wash their fruit. As we came down off the mountain, approaching the unprepossessing ancient city of Veria, the Egnatia filled up at last: thundering frieght lorries from Central Asia and Russia, scary truckster driving, stinking fumes of hammered brakes. In the commercial sector we took a ring road. Crossed a glimmering great reservoir, set in green, that wasn't on the map, and suddenly we were in Vergina. A small town with a big coach park, baking in July heat: a few tavernas, a few empty empty guesthouses. It was the low season, Greece's aestivation. Vergina is a winter and spring resort. There's skiing not far away. Two and a half thousand years ago (give or take...) this was the site of the royal city of Macedon.

Aegae (goat town) was founded when the Macedonians were outsiders, no-accounts of history; dividing their second-rank favours between Athens and Sparta whichever way the battle turned, in the Peleponnesian War. Philip II,* (359 - 336 BCE), single-handedly changed all that. He spent his youth as a hostage in Thebes, the greatest military power in Greece at the time, had excellent training with the legendary Theban Band, and went home to build an army for his older brother the king. A few years later his brother was dead, the Macedonian army had been ripped to pieces by the Illyrians (western Balkan tribes), and the country was falling apart. Philip's first job was to secure his own throne, and then, by sheer prowess in the field, canny adoption of new military technology, and a remarkable series of polygamous marriage-alliances, he set about his project of World Domination. Nothing and nobody could stop him. In 338 BCE, when the Theban Band died to a man at the battle of Cheronea, way down south in the heart of the city-states, he completed his conquest of Greece. In 336 BCE, at forty six years old, he was in the process of invading Persia, and had consolidated his dreams of a pure-blood dynasty by marrying into the Macedonian nobility for a change. Then one Spring day, during the celebration of his daughter's wedding, he was attacked as he entered the theatre by a young nobleman called Pausanias, a member of his bodyguard and possibly one of his lovers, and stabbed to death.

Why did Pausanius do it? Why so publicly? We'll never know. He was put to death instantly, by close friends ofthe king's son Alexander, who, although estranged from his royal father for a while after that dynastic marriage, was standing right beside Philip when the assassin struck.

*Definitely not to be confused with the Republic of Macedonia
**NB, caveat emptor, this account is one of many, and differs in detail from others eg wikipedia

Wednesday 11th September, cooler, broken sunshine. US humanitarian missile strike on Syria holding off for the moment thank God; villagers (some of them) expressing solidarity with the anti-frackers fighting eviction from Balcombe, and the "Transparency of Lobbying Bill" under determined attack. We have bottled plums, started a litre of plum whisky (like sloe gin, only sweeter), and restored some order to the late summer debris of our garden. Sadly, there are fewer frogs at the bottom of it than there were before the rain last friday. They lost their heads and went frolicking about, and paid the price. I found Grey Frog lying in a border with one forelimb torn off, on Saturday morning. The predator/prey relationship isn't healthy, there are far too many cats: about as healthy as a fox in a chickenhouse for my amphibians As always, I just have to hope one or two mating pairs make it through.

Pet Loves Trending Now

Tuesday 3rd September, light cloud, light breeze: feeling cooler. Trying to encourage happy thoughts and positive energy in the world, when all I hear is bad news, I've decided to list some of my favourite things of the moment. In no particular order, so take no notice of the numbers, it's just a convention.

1. I'm loving the whole anti-fracking thing. Great work, please keep it up. Some may depend on mega-salaried goal-scorers, some on celebrities embarrassing themselves. Or kittens. Me, it's people like you who help me to get up in the morning.

Someone asked me, via twitter, what was the location under threat in the Southdowns National Park? That's Fernhurst, in Surrey. Celtique Energie "will be seeking permission some time in the next months". Wisborough Green and Kidford, in West Sussex are next in line. Given the position of the alleged bonanza-bearing shales, the sad fact is that once Cuadrilla have fracked at Balcombe (which they fully intend to do) it all goes. But never say die.

2. Loving the UK Members of Parliament for their no vote last Thursday. Don't Attack Syria sounds wrong to me. I think it should be Don't Attack Assad. Regime change doesn't work is a lesson we thought was learned. Drop Atropine not missiles, is one good idea I've seen. I'm wishing and hoping there'll be no more "Western" military interventions in the Islamic Bloc from any quarter. The intentions may be "humanitarian", the consequences are a lasting hell for the people on the ground (if they survive the shock and awe bit). Especially, if you'll excuse a partisan moment, the women.

3. The HS2 sceptics! Love you a million, guys.

Let's not be economical with the truth: not my usual bedfellows. But this gargantuan bloated vanity project really stinks. Just another funnel to concentrate wealth in the South-East, while the real rail network festers in misery and decay. Will it go ahead? Of course it will! It is Osborne's Big Idea! But thanks for trying!

4. Well, this is not a happy pet love. The ash trees. The new confirmed dieback sites I've been waiting for have started to emerge. Dorset, a spread into mature woodland from infected new planting; okay. But Derbyshire, confirmed sites with no new plantings near by, that's not good, not good at all. Metastasis has begun. Love them while you can.

5. The whistleblowers on the "Gagging Law". Second part of the Transparency of Lobbying Bill. Part 1 just ensures that lobbying will remain as non-transparent as ever. Which compared to Part 2, has to be called relatively benign. Join the people who are making a fuss, any way you can; while you still can Please.

Other news: Glad to see the TOC of Gardner Dozois and George Martin's Old Venus has been revealed, with my story in the cut. After a year or so of getting stern reminders in the post every month, I'd been missing the discipline. I enjoyed writing that one, very much. I bet we all did. Many thanks to the editors for allowing me to have such fun. And the Science Fiction Writers Round Table organised by Red Pepper magazine is online. My remarks, as usual, the most cavalier and off the cuff, although Marge Piercy isn't far behind. Which I don't mind, I'm used to my sad faults, but then they cite White Queen as the novel that fits the "progressive sf" bill, whereas I would definitely have picked Bold As Love. Ah well.


Breaking Bad.Trenchant satire on ruthless toxic capitalism? Or a fine upstanding Fifties'r'us drama about a downtrodden male who finds his macho, puts food on the family table & makes it to the top? Let the people choose! I doubt if I'd have stayed with this if it had been weekly episodes, but have to admit, it has its moments.

What Maisie Knew. Cute little girl, sad and disturbing little story (when rich parents go bad). I think a committee must have vetoed the real ending.


Loving it but feeling a bit sick. John Richardson's Picasso biography. Volume One was fascinating, and I'm looking forward to Volume Two, but Volume Three, after the Parisian Avant Garde and Jazz Age Society part of the great man's life fades out, is plain distasteful.

The stinking rich Schiffs gave a dinner for geniuses, inviting Proust, Picasso, Stravinsky and James Joyce, after a Ballets Russes first night (May 1921) "Joyce turned up late, drunk and inappropriately dressed..." Of course he did!

*I don't really like that term progressive, though I know all the young people do. Progress is progress, there aren't two kinds, a good kind and a bad kind. There's one kind, and it needs Protest to keep it honest. A LOT of protest.

The Springs Of Acheron

Roumeli Greece:2013 The first time we visited the Springs of Acheron, we went by way of the alleged site of a very ancient oracle of the dead. This was, allegedly, where Odysseus came to consult, on his way home: and was startled to find his former Commander In Chief, whom he'd assumed to be lolling about on his laurels in well-built Mycaenae, rich in gold, among the shades. What! are you here?... But the Gates of Hades are currently closed for refurbishment. We knew that, but we'd decided to mosey along to the Necromanteion at Mesopotamos anyway, remembering the old days when ancient sites that were "closed" for any reason or none, could often be accessed by just walking around the fence until you found the place where it gave up. Not anymore.

Tell them I came, and no one answered, I said. That I kept my word..., and we returned to the hired car muttering, it's only an old Epirote League fort with a Christian church on top of it and deep cellars. Barely two thousand and change stupid years old. Odysseus? They're kidding. That's all just a big story...

So anyway, we fed no ghosts with blood but continued to the River of Pain, which one meets in a shadowy grove, just outside a small town called Sweet (Gliki), where, leaving the Kayaking and the Pony Rides for another day, we walked into the gorge of the grey green, grey blue stream, under the eaves of the climbing forest of planes and pines; and soon into the water of pain itself (it's what everybody else was doing). My god it was cold, and yet so wonderful. The rock is white and deeply carven, it must be a hell of a place in winter when the rains come, and friable. You wonder where the springs are going to be, because this river clearly is not a baby, and then you realise they are all around you. The Acheron, which has a weird hairpin course, and a sister river Acherontas running parallel some of the way, is spring-fed all along the gorge: the waters, colder than ice, pure and sweet and teeth-numbing to drink from your hands, thundering up from its bed, shooting through fissures in the carved stone; or out of black caves (that you can't get into, the flow of water is too strong). We all walked up together, Greeks, Italians, Danes, Germans, French, in bikinis, shorts, wet suits, water-sports gear, with glorious smiles on our faces, it was just such an amazing place.

But we'd brought a bag that wasn't waterproof, not realising we'd want to swim, and had to turn back at the first deep stretch. So then we walked up the hillside from the place where you step into the water, and followed the trail to a distant mountain citadel (Zogli) until we reached the former Roman Bridge, a long way upstream; now replaced by a slab of concrete. Here we went swimming in the pools, collected butterly sightings (Southern White Admiral and Cardinals, mainly) and realised there was a magical thing we could do, but it would have to be another expedition. We didn't get to Zogli. It was way too far, and there was a cracking thunderstorm, marvellous light show. Peter is afraid of being struck by lightning, which I find very mysterious, but it goes back to his childhood. I'd just finished telling him how weird it was to fear something so unlikely when we ran into the blackened, riven tree right beside our path... Ah, well.

The second time, we were dressed in water clothes & shoes, and carrying nothing else but the key of the car in my zipped pocket. We walked straight up to the Roman Bridge, and into the river, and "canyoned" down. A modest canyoning experience, but not to be underestimated, I took the first rapids head first: didn't try that again! I was lucky to get away with a few bruises, but we soon figured out what you had to do. Rapids: they're shallow, you clamber, like a crab. Don't climb boulders, it won't help. Deep stretches: you glide, and the fearless yellow wagtails perch and stare at you from the rocks of the gorge, and the icy springs shooting from cracks and cave buffet you, fairly gently. So many! Who would have thought death had undone so many, or that they'd be so starry-eyed happy about it? There was a big Italian family group, including old men, old women, and two little girls in water-wings; my, they were game!, laughing and chattering like joyful starlings, and the strong handing each other across the rapids, forming a chain and passing the rest from hand to hand. They wanted us to join them but we preferred to watch, and cheer them on at each obstacle, and then drift after them in peace. Everyone was asking us, the way you do, when you've just crossed over I suppose, what was it like further up (we speak Europe's second language like natives, which can be useful), and where are the springs? Why, I wondered, am I being taken for Danish? Ah! it's my Katcon teeshirt. Makes perfect sense! Not many of those we met will have made it to the bridge, against the flow. But some will (the Italians, for instance. Even those two little girls.They can't have walked up into the hills in their bikinis!)

I never wanted this wonderful ride to end, but it did, & so at last to the shallows where the really big icy stream rises and joins the river, where there was one fat lady clutching an unfortunate little dog, and we returned, reluctantly to the dry land of the living. Bone cold, loss of core temperature cold, we'd been in the water an hour and a half, and it was astonishing how cold we were. We sipped tiny thimbles of greek coffee in the shadowy grove, & I looked around me and thought how strange if this was the day's harvest of the dead, and how odd that they all seemed to have died in skimpy holiday attire, but maybe that's what dying does to you.

Hours later, and after gobbling a picnic lunch to restore some carbs, I still could not believe that the air temperature was around 30 degrees, although it obviously was. The heat could not reach me.

On our first visit, on our (dry) path down from the bridge, I slipped hard on some steep skala, and scraped a nasty big slice down my shin. I hate holiday injuries, but luckily I knew what to do. I carried on to the river and walked straight into it and stood there until my bones ached. & I was fine. Not a hint of a bruise, no need for a dressing.

In the afternoon, we went kayaking in a different part of the river, down the delta to the sea, which was also pretty nice, a completely different Acheron, dark, not glaucous eau de nil; full of snags and trailing willows and wildlife. The idea was that we would get up close to the wildlife, but that part didn't quite work out, as our guides in the other kayak spoke very little English and never stopped speaking greek. Except to yell BEAVER! once (rather surprising announcement!) at which the two musk rats who'd been calmly watching our approach from the bank very swiftly took themselves off... Never mind, I love kayaking, & it was very peaceful and nice. The Penduline Tits were ace too. Their nests are really cool. (Photo from wikipedia, read all about them here)

That's a very wonderful river, and if it really flows out of Hades, it speaks well of the place.

My Fracking Round-Up

Roumeli Greece:2013 Tuesday 27th August, another warm sunny afternoon & I meant to post this yesterday, but I was sidetracked, by the Transparency of Lobbying Bill ironically enough.

So now the Direct Action weekend at Balcombe slips over the horizon, my MP still waiting to be charged I presume, the only item of public interest left seems to be the huge policing bill (Kaching!) which some say should not be a burden on the public, (Sign here). & I'm left with the vivid recollection of the massive police presence, rushing on the peaceful protest crowd (the same protesters the police themselves had praised, hours before, for their gentle, admirable attitude and good behaviour), with that terrifying surge of violence they use just to get things over with, okay? ; and the equally vivid recollection of Francis Egan's hurt and puzzled expression, in pride of place on the BBC news. Mr Egan, of course, has every right to feel hurt and puzzled, from his own point of view. He paid very good money. . . (well, "good" is moot, when speaking of the wealth of cash spilled out in toxic lobbying operations, but at any rate plenty of it). . . to have this little business in West Sussex; this old-time extreme draining of the dregs of a few little wells, which now comes with such a mighty industrialisation of the countryside slipping along behind it, in short, the whole fracking bonanza, rubber-stamped and shooed in, without any problem whatsoever. . .

Never mind, Mr Egan, help was on the way. A "Green" group in Dorking, that's in Surrey, north of Sussex, the next county in the firing line btw, had already come out in favour of fracking. Transition Dorking "surprised even itself" by finding that exploration and fracking may be less damaging to the environment, on balance, than importing fossil fuels.

(I suppose it depends what you think of as "the environment". Given that global warming (hence that expression, global), is a global problem, it really doesn't matter a great deal to me whether the US/UK stops using dirty coal, and sells it to China instead. I do not call that a reduction in the use of fossil fuels. As many have pointed out, it's debatable whether fracked gas really is cleaner; or even more secure, (see here and below) but as a 'clean, interim solution' to the global warming vs global energy use crisis, it just does not make sense.

But so it will go on. Brute force, dirty tricks, stunning disregard for human misery on the part of the Industry and a greedy, shameless lobbyist culture at Westminster and in Washington, & forty years from now, someone or other will finally be allowed to admit that yes, fracking always was a really bad idea; that yes, the industry was allowed improper access to government decision-making, yes, corruption was rife, shocking lies were told... It was too late for a whole lot of people who would really rather not have died of lung cancer, when the Tobacco Industry was finally (and only partially) brought to heel. It'll be too late on a somewhat larger scale, when this profitable pustule is finally popped.

What can I tell you about Loutsa-Vrachos Beach? It's twenty, twenty-five kilometres down the wetland coast of Western Greece from Parga, site of a very ancient port (now long lost), a tiny town with tiny streets, climbing up the sides of a succession of rocky coves, sort of a hot Cornwall effect; currently the resort of choice for foreign tourists. Nice, but Loutsa, on the other hand, is a fine sand beach (which you will probably know is a rare find in Greece and the islands), but this one is three and a half kilometres long, and faces west, naturally enough. Magnificent sunsets come as standard, there's also a very good restaurant called the Argo, and snorkelling bays at either end of endless flat curve. There used to be a few patches of sun-loungers, but you can't have too much of a good thing, so now, alas, there are thousands of the charmers, in almost unbroken seried ranks, which slightly detracts from the paradisical dreamlike effect. Also, you better like House music... But I do, as long as it's drifting out at gentle, chilled sound levels, and we had a very good time here, our first stop after travelling by train and ferry, via Milan and Bari, 2 days and 2 nights.

The keynote picture is from Wikipedia. Hydraulic Fracking operation on the Marcellus Shale. Coming soon to the South Downs National Park (Fernhurst).

Intercalary 2 (Transparency of Lobbying Bill)

Monday 26th August, Bank Holiday, fine and clear, going to be a warm afternoon. Countless trips to the tip and countless roof-timber bumps on my head later, we've finished tackling the loft. What a horrible chore, in the dust and the heat and the dark up there and what a dreadful frustrating mess it was, our so-called attic book room. All different now, new bookshelves in situ, and just wait until I gild the skulls and finish the decorations, when I have recovered my health. Coff coff. What a way to spend the last days of summer, but in fact I hate the last days of summer, so I didn't mind at all being forced to stay away from Brighton Beach. Have also cut down my raggedy daisy meadow, and sliced it all up for compost.

This "Transparency of Lobbying" Bill has a very scary look, and a very sneaky title. The least of my worries is that it's designed to make sure that only the so-called "main political parties" (433,00 memebrs in total) have any access to the public. It definitely does not seem to be aimed at eg making sure people who lobby on the healthful effects of cigarette smoking have to declare that they're taking money from the Tobacco Industry. It definitely does seem to be aimed at silencing the whistleblowers, & making all forms of charitable, social and environmental campaigning criminal. If they don't know what they're doing, someone, lots of someones, should tell them. If they DO, then God help us. What's going on? Apparently you can find out here:

I've emailed Chloe Smith, on the principle that you never do nothing because you don't know everything.

As is traditional, the keynote photo is of the Hungry Ghosts Moon, last week, a very clean clear white moon it was: and links to the blog where I found the image. So now the year has turned, but still my intercalary as the new term hasn't started.

Intercalary 1

Roumeli Greece:2013 Friday 16th August, grey skies, cool air and a soft rain through the morning; warmth and light coming through now. Coincidentally, grey skies, cool air and a full-on thunderstorm met us in Ioannina, Western Greece last month, the day before this photograph was taken, which we hadn't expected. I love thunderstorms, so I didn't mind at all.

Blood on the streets of Cairo as the ill-starred revolutionary "Arab Spring" descends into Terror, in the oldest continually civilised country on Earth.

Cuadrilla announce they are 'scaling back' their prospective fracking operation at Balcombe (Fields Of Gold), in the face of determined, nationally organised, Non Violent Direct Action; and local opposition. They'll pop up again. Cuadrilla have consistently treated the local authorities at Balcombe, and the regulatory authorities concerned in the permissions they've needed, with contempt. Like the leaders of our current government, they seem convinced that the people will take anything they say as gospel, and nobody can see what they are actually doing,.

I'll be staying away from Balcombe this weekend. I fully support the protest, including acts of mass civil disobedience, as long as it remains non-violent, and yet I feel for the people of the village, (not to mention the rest of the inhabitants of this lovely place) and the stress they have to bear.

Reading Experimentalism Otherwise, Benjamin Piekut. Gabriel wanted me to read the introduction to this book (about the avant garde music movement in New York in the sixties), but when I started it I couldn't put it down. Absolutely fascinating, and I was twelve in 1964, but in a weird way, I was there. The feeling that everything had to be thrown up in the air and all hierarchies dissolved reached even the faculty at my my convent girls' school (honest, it did!). There's also an analysis of the Jazz Composers Guild & all the politics surrounding Jazz vs Free Jazz, and the Civil Rights Movement vs nascent Black Power, that's amazingly like an analysis of whatwas kicking off in science fiction, in the same exact times. I kept expecting to come across Chip Delanyor Joanna Russ, but I didn't. Just Yoko Ono, and of course Iggy Pop. Penetrating, incisive art history. Highly recommended.

Watching I saw Wadjda at the Duke Of Yorks last Tuesday. It's about a little girl who wants a bike, and her cunning plan to raise the money by winning a Q'ran recital competition at her school. It's wonderful, I loved it, you must go to see it. Haifaa Al Mansour is a genius, and the cast were all amazing. The beauty of Wadjda's recitation of the sura is heart-stopping, and so painful, knowing what we know: she has been taught by her mother, who is in the perilous position of a... no, I won't spoil it. Nice blog entry from this new (to me) woman blogger I've found, too.

Also, late last night, after I'd trounced the Wind Temple boss, a rather inexplicable Spike Lee caper movie, Inside Man, featuring several high class names doing not very much, eg Jodie Foster as some kind of uber-fixer, whose whole part consists of smiling in a very superior way; repeat ad lib. It passed the time pleasantly.

Keynote image is the serai mosque, inner citadel of Ali Pasha (Byron was here, in amazing number of costume changes, circa 1809). This is another shot of the same place, in the rain, taken from the Byzantine Museum restaurant terrace. Nice time there. Once or twice on our travels I meditated a foreign correspondent blog post, but the Wifi was just too shaky. I'm still meditating publishing an account of our tour around the Roumeli here. We had some brilliant experiences. Maybe I'll get round to it.

White Grapes And Scarlet Tigers

Wednesday 10th July, midmorning, shrilling swifts right over my head in the garden, brilliant flowers, blue skies and warm sun. The cats are sulking, but they'll be okay. The tadpole tub has been emptied, the kindergarten by the wildlife pool (with access to the adult world for amphibians) has been stocked with back-legs, the four-leg froglets released to brave the miniature pikes (sticklebacks), but not the goldfish. Gabriel is back in England, after his epic bike ride across La Belle France to the World Wide festival at Sete, and by the way, the story that the French are sunk in gloom is a story. Such adventures, such music and drinking and dancing, and then yesterday the tale of the good holiday that nearly went bad. But mid-Tour, how could the French railway guards refuse the pleas of a sweat-dripping francophile young cyclist, just caned it to Montpellier, desperate to take his Specialised on their no bikes! train to Lille. They could not, bless them. And that's the end of 2012-2013 for me, tho' I'll be back in mid August for an intercalendary pause, and about time too says my left hand, v. keen for a break from incessant typing.

& Among all the end of the world is nigh issues I could gripe about, a tribute and my best wishes to Husam Helmi, spokesperson for the Syrian Non-Violence Movement, co-founder of Enab Baladi, the newspaper of the Non-Violence Movement. I talked to him and heard him speak, and he has convinced me that There Is a Non-Violence Movement, that started operations against the Assad regime 2003, years before this suspect "Arab Spring" thing was founded on that Slap. Enab Baladi means white grapes, it's what his home town was famous for, their wonderful dessert grapes. Before they became famous for being massacred. Do not dismiss Syria. Or Eygpt. Just don't arm the rebels, the Islamists, or anyone else.

Anyway, so long: off to join the circus again.

The keynote picture is a pair of scarlet tigers, scarce in some places apparently but not in our gardens at this time of year. These moths are famous for their "tameness". They really have no fear. They think they've taken care of that angle with the Red For Danger costume, and they'll climb onto your finger to be admired. Not dangerous to us, their beauty works just as well.

Happy Birthday Ginger

Wednesday 26th June. Blue sky fading to white, one swift hurrying for the horizon at 9.15, obviously late for work. Getting cooler again. It's past midsummer and did you know there is still snow enough to ski on Ben Nevis? Wow. Anyway, it's my cat Ginger's birthday, she is twelve, so I thought I'd celebrate with a bouncing totoro.

My friend Maude is always sending me Youtube links & not always puppies. Usually I find the Obamas just repellent, and not least when hugging the Irish, but this is one Prresidential Visit highlight I had to share. It's just wonderful:

Sumatra's Burning

Friday 21st June. Sumatra's burning again. The blaze must be quite a size, given the effects in Singapore and Malaysia, and cynic that I am, I'm thinking, that's not the small landowners, it's the Palm Oil firms, kind of accidentally getting rid of the annoying scraps of stuff still been getting in their way... I am heartsick, and I'm muttering, I didn't know there was that much rainforest left. But what do I know? & Jakarta makes no apology, there's a surprise. Photo courtesy of the Wall Street Journal account

On Wednesday it was summer, did you notice? We sat out late and watched the swifts, swarming in a pure blue evening sky. Now there's a cold persistent mist outside my window, and the full moon of the solstice has been cancelled, I'm afraid.


Alif The Unseen: Easy-reading updated version of Aladdin by a New Jersey girl, currently a convert to Islam and married to an Eygptian: set in a fictional modern Muslim city somewhere near the Persian Gulf, but with magic: in which Aladdin is a white, no, sorry, grey hat hacker (with a sideline in obsessive stalking of old flames); the Djinn is pretty cool, and the princess is a bold, shallow, unveiled no-good who gives up her virginity FAR too easily, and is thoroughly trounced by the full-veiled, FGM certified (at least, the Djinn reckons she's been "cut", and I think he'd know), "Wahhabi"-fan Girl Next Door. Comes unravelled at the end. I'm not kidding, this book is easy to read and enjoyable, even if the fun is punctuated by the occasional sharp intake of breath. And I'm not taking G. Willow Wilson to task for Disneyfying serious issues in her adopted culture, or even for popping up in her own fantasy: not my business. I'm just rather startled at the number of people who should know better, including plenty female respondents on, who apparently loved this without reservation, rating Dina the girl next door a simply great role model, a feisty, independent heroine. Do they even know what female genital mutilation entails? How would they like it, if an old boyfriend (in a place where an unmarried young woman's "virtue" is her right to stay alive) sent the sheet stained with their virgin blood round to their Dad's house, with an extremely tactless message to the effect, I think this is something of yours, babe... Enough.

Boneland The third episode in Alan Garner's Weirdstone trilogy. I'm mildly addicted to amazon reviews: I often find them more illuminating than the professional kind. & I find I agree with many of the uk respondents on Boneland. It's sparse and beautiful, and it has all the ingredients you'd expect, the cosmology, the Stone Age, the majestic symmetry of time, etc; it's a pretty-good effort at imagining what happens to the adult, who was once a child character in a classic children's fantasy. And sometimes this slender volume buckles under the weight of its content.

Distractingly, I kept thinking of William Mayne's Earthfasts, also featuring Sleepers Under The Hill, and lightning strikes, & also I was disappointed in the ending. I thought Colin deserved a proper story not just the same old, same old boy-loses-goddess, boy-finds-goddess thing. And then I just wished there was more. I don't remember what happens at the end of The Moon Of Gomrath. I'll have to read it, and the Weirdstone, again.

Forgot to mention: the Forever War (I mean, my private, family affair) ended today.

GITMO detention permanent

Sunday 16th June, blue skies after morning drizzle. Just back from the Sewing Guernica Project for half an hour in the Jubilee Library, a kind of ritual act of art as protest, as i understand it, the banner gets created in public, by women and men who haven't, most of them, done much sewing before (plus a core team of experts), and this will be going on all summer, in various venues. Me, I can sew, not so great at small talk, which is a handicap... The swifts haven't been around for a few days. I hope they come back.

So, the House of Representatives has voted to keep GITMO open and for the detention of prisoners never charged, and cleared of any wrong-doing, to continue forever.

Hard to get your head around the world we live in, is it not? Cannibal pie.

Sewing Guernica is at the Jubilee library next Sunday too, and at the Friends' Meeting House in Middle Street the week after, if you feel like dropping in. Materials provided! Mind you sign your needle in and out. Dangerous things, sewing needles...

Common Dreams urgently needs more donations, btw, and it provides a vital service. If you feel you could give them some money (whether or not you're in the US), please do.

The Landscape Of Fear

Friday 14th June, grey and perishing cold.

Loved Caroline Lucas's teeshirt stunt in the Commons, and her quick-witted connection between this modest white teeshirt, deemed offensive, inappropriate dress, and the half-naked "glamour models" relentlessly assaulting us, from the pages of a national newspaper. . . and then I remembered an article I read in last week's New Scientist, called "Landscape of Fear". It was based on an animal behaviour survey in Yellowstone Park, meant to see how the elk population was responding now wolves have been reintroduced. The received theory is that predators keep prey species in check by eating them. The discovery was that the process works by intimidation alone. Where the elks can smell wolves, where they can see signs of wolves, they can't thrive. Physical condition suffers, reproduction rate suffers, population goes down. Young elk don't play, stressed adults leave the meadows, and retreat into the forest, where food is harder to find. "it was like looking at two different countries" says the scientist. "One at peace and one at war." Conclusion: top predators don't have to kill, their kills are relatively infrequent and isolated events, compared to their mere presence. They just have to be around, being scary. . .

This is what men do to women, I thought. They don't have to rape and kill (and if actual violence against women were aberrant behaviour, it would hardly have the same impact). It's the relentless, "harmless" low-level intimidation that keeps women "in their place", that's what does the trick.

I remember how I felt in the Seventies, and even the Eighties. How close change seemed, how I could walk with my head up; how sure I was that the men I counted as friends in sf genre understood what equality meant, and could be trusted. But after a while, I knew had to change my mind. I knew it would be much harder than I'd thought, because nobody, ever gives up entrenched privilege and unjust powers without a long, dogged struggle. And it had to be a non-violent struggle, this dogged one step forward two steps back mission to make the world a better place, whatever form it takes, and no matter how long it might take, because once the weapons are out, everybody loses. And then it was September 2001, and I knew that women the world over, not only in the overt warzones, would be living in a landscape of fear again.

I am so proud of the young women of today, the ones who stand up, who speak out, even in this landscape of fear; even despite the endless intimidation.
I have such respect for them.