Skip to content

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.

Fields Of Gold

Tuesday 11th June, cold and grey, with a light persistent drizzle. Yesterday was well omened and productive, good work on the latest project, studied my greek, saw the swifts racing about over my head at 7.30am (I'm beginning to believe our tiny colony here is secure, for a while) and spotted a stickleback! The first sighting since they were decanted into the "wildlife" pool back in mid May. (But we knew they were okay, as the mosquito larvae horde vanished). Today I have achieved absolutely nowt except lose my latest phone photos in the depths of Picasa and spend about 3 hours trying to locate them; fail to spot an Afghan Women's Rights petition that was staring me in the face, fail to buy any "organic" apples because they were all generic monsters from Argentina, and go for a swim. Oh wait, I got my my hair cut. And bought some tomatoes.

There, that's my contribution to the NSA's scrapbook for the day. I feel I may have been cheating on them, since I use Facebook to advertise for Avaaz and Compassion In World Farming and the like, whereas this blog is usually short on idle life-logging.

I Kid You Not

So cultural since Stimmung, I don't know where to start. King Lear in St Nicolas Gardens (bit of a wash-out, sadly. No magic, no tragic grandeur and even the weather more dismal than spectacular), Hamlet at Stratford on Avon, Gabriel Jones and Marianne Wright at Charlton House, standing in for an absent friend (lovely, of course, especially the Debussy set). David Farr's/Jonathan Slinger's Hamlet didn't please everyone and I agree with most of the criticisms in the Spectator review (although I loved the jumpers-touch, personally). Ophelia was a bland schoolgirl, Hamlet was Prufrock, and the rest of 'em hardly differentiated. Yet somehow it was gripping, from start to finish, & when I say Slinger's look of dazzled, radiant relief, when he has finally achieved his task, will stay with me, I am not being funny.

We ate in the rooftop restaurant, and how beautiful the Avon and its trees looked, under a blue-washed evening sky, katoprasino, as the greeks say, greener than green. But were not tempted by the playful idea of a mock-child pie.

Pleased by the month's early sales figures on my Bold as Love ebooks (nb, it does not take much to please me!), may I reccommend the Bold As Love website: really not bad, considering the tools I had, and the complete absence of any training (I just made it up). Except it's a little alarming to note how much of what I saw and imagined ahead, but thought was either wildly exaggerated, pure fantasy or "really" a hundred years away, is with us now. Even Devolution for Wales, my goodness. The Band of Gypsys page is the best effort, I think.

May I also draw your attention to the original gwynethann site, where you'll find a wealth of stories and essays, not all of them annoyingly formatted in strange designs, and there's usually a download button. (I've been locked out of gwynethann for a while, as my ancient form of Dreamweaver can't talk to Windows 8, but I have plans)

Calling All. . . Clarion Alumni and Friends

If you are working on a writing project this summer, please consider signing up yourself for the annual Clarion write-a-thon:

What is a write-a-thon, anyway? It's just like a walk-a-thon. But instead of walking, we're writing, and instead of making pledges per mile, we're making pledges per word, chapter, or story. Writers get support, encouragement and motivation, and the option of joining or creating a team of other writers. Those who care about the writers in their life get a way to show their support. And money is raised for a literally fantastic cause -- the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop. For further details, go to

The keynote image today is the buttercup meadows at Balcombe, East Sussex, an Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty, I never saw them so beautiful as this year, and look your last, because Cuadrilla is about to start tearing them apart. I kid you not. And for what? Why destroy this beauty, in the face of the passionate resistance of the locals? Why add more and worse poison to the poisonous cocktail already being forced down our throats? Even if it's successful, even if it wasn't another giant leap towards setting our feet on Cormac McCarthy's Road, SHALE GAS MINING WILL NOT REDUCE THE PRICE OF GAS. I think you can believe it, when the firms involved tell us so themselves. So why? Kid pie... There's no end to it, is there.

Something In The Air...

Wednesday 22nd May, same heavy cloud as yesterday, but still and not too cold. The swifts are satisfied with this weather, they were hawking under the cloud all morning, over the valley outside my window.

Today the Nature Conservation bodies of the UK published their ominously titles State Of Nature report, and as you would expect, it's not good news. Nor will there ever be good news for the State Of Nature, until all the people who don't care by natural inclination realise they need to care. Starting with our government, whose antics just get loonier and loonier, as if to make amends; while the real live loons (the great divers, whose cry is like the mourning of lost souls) are set to vanish. Along with the butterflies, the hedgehogs, the toads, the swifts. The bees. Hey, BBC, what about that other news item you posted today, all about the bumper apple crop, our reward for a long cold winter. Not without the bees, there won't be (to quote one of the few non-facetious comments this story garnered).

Anyway, that lovely lad in the keynote image today is Karlheinz Stockhausen, in commemoration of a rare performance of Stimmung that we attended on Saturday night in the Jubilee Library, courtesy of the estimable MOOT (a screaming party of swifts chasing us joyously down Roundhill Crescent, as we left the house). Six singers, one chord, and a medley of interwoven "lyrics", notably including the highly graphic erotic poetry Karlheinz had just written on his honeymoon (the piece is dedicated to his second wife, artist Mary Bauermeister). But the word means atmosphere, and I'm so taken with it I think I'll change the name of one of the characters in my current work-in-progress. Ah, 1968 and all that! I will not attempt to describe Stimmung to you, but the singers (Intimate Voices) were great, the Irishfusionrock on the Great Escape stage outside shut up after the first ten minutes; I personally loved it, and the venue wonderfuly well chosen. We don't often get to see what a beautiful majestic space the library hall is, with its floating mezzanine floor above. (But couldn't help reflecting, me, that the Council must have been mad to think we'd ever pay off the never-never...)

This afternoon have taken delivery of a breeding pair of 3 spined sticklebacks, from Carp Co of Kent. Buying sticklebacks is like buying a hamster btw: the livestock pretty much free, the packaging is the expensive bit. But better than taking them from some wild habitat, and I fell out with the idea of snow melt minnows. They have now vanished into the depths of the "wildlife pond", from whence I sincerly hope they will emerge to make forays on the mosquito larvae. I love nature, but I really refuse to live with a mosquito-ridden swamp at the bottom of the garden.

Picked up Alif the Unseen at the Jubilee yesterday. I wonder if I'll like it, having not very positive feelings about the Arab Spring, owing to the legend of its origins besides everything else. I mean The Slap.

A woman in uniform has the temerity to slap a man (actually she didn't) and this sparks off a glorious democratic Islamic revolution... Well, that's just great. That just about sums it up.

Of which more later, when we've been drowned at King Lear.

Un bel di vedremo

Friday 17th May, & the hundredth day of the hunger strike at Guantanamo. If you're interested, why not give President Obama a call on 1.202.456.1111? Tell him you fully support him in his committment to shut the place down, and what's wrong with today? If you're UK, you could tell him you're very willing to welcome Shaker Aamer back to London, so there's no problem here...

Cloudy afternoon with warmth in the air. How quickly the urban gardens have put on their summer plumage, since spring finally arrived. Even the walnut tree at the bottom of the hill is covered in blossom (I mean, chunky green catkins). How the blackbirds, the warblers and the dunnocks sing. This morning, early, one, two, three, no, four, no five, swifts, hawking and shrilling up in a clear, cold blue sky. They arrived at last yesterday evening. So few, but still, here they are, one more time. Hope it's a better season for them than 2012. Flying very high, they can't be nesting around here anymore, but somewhere not far away. I've heard there's a swift conservation thing going on around Brighton General, the old hospital that clambers along the top of the hill opposite my window: must check that out.

Good news! The HS2 project has been found wanting by the National Audit Office. Benefits unclear, huge funding gap. Yay! Spend (some of the money) elsewhere! The country will get a rail service that works, instead of this massive BIG CONCEPT friends-of-Dave money pit. Oh, wait a minute. The story's gone and vanished. There's a different one up on the BBC page now... Ah well.

Here's another glimmer of sense. The Thames Estuary Airport "should be rejected", and Heathrow should be improved instead. Excellent idea! (Relatively, in a country where any suggestion of putting the brakes on climate change just gets blank looks). I can dream.

Yet more good news (er, arguably): Deep Water Horizon bites. I wonder if BP really did beg Dave Cameron to help them wriggle out of the awful price of what they did. Who can tell? Bad timing, given the building row over petrol price-fixing. I wonder if they really are getting seriously damaged by naughty US lawyers, who have neither morals nor limits to their greed? Sounds far-fetched to me, but one can hope.


Nicola Griffith's Hild is "one of the most buzzed-about forthcoming novels of the year". Wow. Sounds exciting! Congratulations to Nicola.

And hurrahs for Jonathan Wright on the launch of his Adventure Rocketship! "Let's All Go To The Science Fiction Disco!" (I was supposed to contribute to this one, only it didn't work out)


Arne Dahl, the Swedish police procedural with a novel twist. He likes his happy endings, doesn't he? Hannibal the Cannibal x2, but I don't think we're going back for more, not even for the sake of the riveting and adorable Mads Mikkelsen. Gabriel tells people Mikkelsen is our "man-crush": leading me to point out that being a heterosexual (mostly) female, I'm entitled to call it an unqualifed crush). I am definitely going to get round to buying The Hunt, sick of waiting for it to turn up on a mocie channel. But "Hannibal?" Nah, I don't think so. The concept is rinsed out, the execution gory, grisly shallow and portentous. See, in my book, gory grisly and shallow is absolutely fine. But not that third thing.

And old movies, and the Channel Four news in case there's any more good jokes trending, like the BP thing aforementioned, or Nigel Farage calling people fascists...


Belinda Baur, Darkside. I liked "Blacklands" when it came out, I still like Bauer's deceptively simply, almost childish style, but this one seems a bit exploitative, and also features my very least favourite type of homicidal maniac.

Hakan Nesser, The Return. Solid stuff. Why is there a moody picture of a girl on every Nesser cover now? Really don't get it.

The Voice Of The Spirits Xavier-Marie Bonnot. I like this one. Quirky, intriguing and enjoyable, and the cops of Marseille are a breath of fresh air. Full of quotes from Claude Levi-Strauss, who was a hero of mine, long time ago. Reccommended.

All we read is thrillers now. Puzzles dark and dreadful. It worries me, but then I read the news again, oh boy, and I think I know why.

PS, click throught the keynote swift image to hear Maria Callas. Unearthly. A voice like no other. Sorry about the ad intro. There may be a nifty way to cut it out completely, but since I don't know how, just skip the first 15seconds

Kairos: 2 Days Free Download

Wednesday 8th May. Rain in the night, and a soft grey day to follow, a frog and a toad in the fish-pool (not together, of course: minding their own business at opposite ends). And now I realise what I've been missing for so long out there. Slugs and snails have appeared in force!

Kairos: Free download from Amazon Kindle May 10th and May 11th

It had to be added to the e-collection, for completism, but for years, I've thought of Kairos as terminally obsolete. All near-future sf is doomed to be blatantly at odds with the facts before long & often it doesn't matter a great deal: but who would want to read about such a shabby, debt-ridden, paranoid alternative present? This beleagured feminist bookshop owner, with her girlfriend going crazy on the scrapheap of graduate unemployment, and her scrabbling samizdat networks of protest. Their ex-friends, the well-heeled gay couple, in danger whenever they step out of their ghetto with the invisible walls. The unlikely great gulf that's opened up, swallowing the prosperity of the masses, in the heart of Western Civilisation... Homophobia? Thing of the past, to suggest otherwise is just insulting. Feminist? Can anyone even say the word without embarrassing themselves? Protest? Nobody does that! There's no such thing!

But time is a helix, and Otto Murray's world, now technically a fictional version of our recent past ("first decade of the twentyfirst century" is the only date you get for the action), looks weirdly familiar. Or at least I thought so, when I was preparing the text for epub*. The despair of the debt-ridden. Food Banks. Riots. Financial collapse. Second, third and more generations of the traditionally unemployed (or zero hours contracted), festering in the hinterland. The Secret State. Occupy and all that. And that "Islamic War" (though we don't call it that, and "we" have had troops on the ground; probably will have again), its shadow growing and growing... Strange omissions and skewed assumptions begin to stand out, like clumsy period touches in a novel supposed to be about the Eighties, but clearly written just the other day.

Those BREAKTHRU reps! Stalking the dissidents in their golden, sexed-up, angelic fancy-dress. Straight off Top Of The Pops, circa 1984. No digital networking devices (an absence that kept bothering me). And I notice I assumed there'd be a much heavier dependence on Nuclear Power by now. More serious accidents too, andpeople would just live with the consequences... Bit ahead of myself there, still: I blame Chernobyl. But I had the obsession with fancy food right down!

The shocking parts are still shocking. I remember, a friend of mine (Rachel Pollack, I think) said she really, really couldn't take what happens between Otto and her former best friend, James Esumare. She's dead right, it's awful. But it seemed necessary to me, and still does. Bad things, bad things come running out, when the old house falls down...

Reviews: One contemporary and one modern.

(NB, academic interest only. If by chance you'd like to read the book without knowing how things turn out, beware "spoilers" esp. in the Niall Harrison essay. Stuffed with them.)

"...a peculiarly British drabness..."

"...THERE are moments in life when you suspect yourself of harbouring old-fashioned notions..."

The Cosmic Background

Whatever else it is, Kairos definitely isn't anything like sci-fi anymore. Not a scrap. So why does the epub of this socially radical supernatural thriller share a cover design with the "Space Race", hard sf based Escape Plans? Sheer laziness?

Not at all! It's me method-acting, thinking like a real sci-fi publisher...

No, there's a proper reason. With Escape Plans, I made a conscious decision to tell the same story, the story of the Great Escape that sf longs for, as in Divine Endurance, but in a different context. When I got to Kairos I felt I had a theme and variations going. What if the people who long for change, who hunger and thirst for change, who endure persecution in the name of a new heaven and a new earth, should suddenly be overwhelmed by change itself, by the "moment" when everything leaps into another state, on the most humungous scale imaginable? They haven't a clue what's happening. This is not a disaster movie, nobody has a clue: and yet, inextricably, they are defining the outcome. Deciding which side up the coin lands just by being there; being the observers.

There's this version of the Standard Model (or there was, I haven't heard of it for a while), where the expansion of the universe ends in a contraction, called The Big Crunch. And then everything just starts expanding again, only with all the rules reversed.. That sounds appealing, I thought, as a lover of puns.

Didn't James Tiptree say, It'll never change, unless it all changes...?

Arguably, the yellow figure inscribed on the cosmic background should be a tesseract or something for Kairos, in homage to another ancient and dodgy supernatural thriller, called Many Dimensions. But I couldn't figure out how to draw a tesseract in Paint, so I had to make do.

*This e-edition is revised from the original 1988 hardcover digital files. There are no material changes, but it may not be identical with the Gollancz 1995 paperback.

Anyway, that's the lot. Kairos Free Download Amazon Kindle store May 10th May 11th