Paean to Oswestry Iron Age Fort and a Plea to Protect its Rarity

There are not many places where a person can stand and be immersed in an ancient place. So much of England is now dissected by roads and urban sprawl is eating up good farmland. So many ancient sites have been mauled by industrialization and access to them is too often only through ticketing and running the gauntlet of commercial tatt.

Oswestry Iron Age Fort is an oasis. It is surrounded by farmland. The winding lane, which grants access, slows cars and favours pedestrians. There are only welcoming signs and discrete boards with information about the site; a person runs no marketing gauntlets nor has to produce evidence of membership.

From the top of the Fort’s flattened hill, which anyone can climb for free, a person can see to the east a wonderful view across miles of the Shropshire Plain towards Shrewsbury and Grinshill and to the west see the rise of Berwyn Mountains. It is so easy to understand the reason why the ancients chose this position for its defensive capability; moreover all traders and visitors would be seen well before they arrived at the centre of a thriving community. It is clear how floods and marshes would have dominated this landscape and it explains the positioning and naming of this and other old settlements.

Although the noise of the A5 is heard the road is not close enough to be a threat to the Fort. Only a few farm houses and several cottages can be seen from the crest of the hill which is part of its incredible charm. It is a jewel in a beautiful setting.

And now there is a plan to rip the setting to bits; there is a plan to have a large housing estate lapping at the foot of this site. It is a plan which has so little value and will cause great harm to this place. It will imperil archaeological value and there will be a loss of valuable agricultural land. Most worrying is the consequent increase in easy, unthinking access to the Fort which will ensue. It will become just another playpark. If this planning proposal for houses so close to the Fort goes ahead the flood gates must necessarily be opened: I foresee building facilities to cope with the increase in human and car traffic, I anticipate the widening of roads and locals can expect entrance fees. The current failure to deal with the present crumbling road network and to adequately find a solution to the increased pressure on public places, consider Nesscliff Hill, suggests that Oswestry Iron Age Fort, a fragile and invaluable ecological and historical oasis, will be pummelled into a desert.

All are indicators this application must be refused. If anything the work of the planners should be directed towards protecting this wonderful place. The aim should be to protect Oswestry Iron Age Fort and even make it more of a pilgrimage and ensuring access is made by small electric buses or on foot or via hired bikes.

Foreign and British visitors come to the area to view this amazing site. They are awed by its tranquility and sense of timelessness. Urban sprawl will blight enjoyment and understanding. What Oswestry Iron Age Fort requires is a commitment to protect it and its environs for future generations.

I just hope this objection to a stupid and damaging plan, in conjunction with all the other local and national objections, will make the planners stop this development.

Planning Threats

Guidance for objecting to the new planning application (20/01033/EIA) for development in the setting of Old Oswestry hillfort

‘PLANNING APPLICATION REFERENCE: 20/01033/EIA, Land To The North Of Whittington Road, Oswestry, Shropshire. Proposed residential development of 91 No. dwellings with associated access, public open space, electricity sub-station, drainage and landscaping.’

DEADLINE: Monday 20th April 2020

Exactly 8 years since major development by Old Oswestry was first proposed, we are asking for your support once more in opposing the latest bid to build houses in the hillfort’s near landscape.

This third attempt with a planning application, for 91 houses, is still as large and as damaging to the significance and experience of this outstanding Iron Age hillfort and its setting as previous ones.

Be warned: this is likely to be our final chance to stop this widely opposed and unnecessary development. It will have very tangible, negative and irreversible impacts on a nationally important heritage landscape – entirely senseless when Oswestry has alternative sites for housing.

The deadline for objections to this stupid planning application is gone but maybe sense and sensibility will prevail.

Repo Virtual by Corey J. White

I really liked this science fiction novel, Repo Virtual, because White created sufficient complexity in the environment and in the characters, gradually revealed, which gave some depth to the heist and chase scenes, which while stereotypical of the genre was fun.

Repo Virtual By Corey J. White

That the city environment, for the people who travelled its streets or between places, was coated and massaged by a virtual reality into something more palatable than the ‘real world’ was provoking. Only those too poor to afford the virtual technology and who travelled on foot were exposed to the dire deterioration which characterized much of the city. It made me think about how the advertising and the superficial hides the dross, decay and suffering in our world. The better one’s access to virtual reality, dependent on wealth and being able to afford the better technology and transport, the more tolerable the perceived environment becomes and the less care there is about the real one. Policing is primarily undertaken by AI in the form of watchful transport and robot police dogs, suborned by Soo-hyun in the first instance and then by the AGI, to maintain the disparity in wealth in this Korean city was grotesque.

Julius Dax, virtual repossession agent, currently living in a small apartment with his mother, works constantly to try and feed them both. Through his eyes we see the poverty and desperation as gaming players try and earn enough virtual points to survive in the real world, which is mind-numbingly noisy, dirty and hostile. It is to earn money he agrees to assist his brother, a man referred to as ‘they’ which may suggest different personalities as Soo-hyun seems to flip from engineering and electronic  genius to enraged idiot in a flash, thieve a piece of tech for the cult leader living on the outskirts of the city. Soo-hyun is part of cult lead by the devious Kali, who was nasty but could have been nastier, and lives to be nasty somewhere else in another way.

JD keeps the tech as the theft goes wrong. He and his lover, Troy, interact with an Autonomous Generative Intelligence. They become the parents and set the moral parameters. This part of the novel is clunky but a necessary brick in the wall. Others wish to use this extra-ordinary being as a slave and two different groups converge on JD. The cold-blooded Dave Yeun, who has already eliminated the creator the AGI, ‘Zero has been retired’, employs an assassin to recover the tech. His moral parameters for the AGI would be dreadfully different. Edna decides to assist her target, JD, instead of kill him and it is mostly due to her intervention he survives.

Edna is a brilliant character: moral, guilty, driven, clever and reactive with hints as to her dubious backstory. The other characters lack such elucidated pasts. She is the antithesis of the self-serving, manipulative guru-type Kali who peddles ‘the lies people wanted most desperately to believe’ but to get the power she wants anything goes, though she ‘will take responsibility for the pain we must cause’. She approves the dreadful violence meted out to Khoder which is  an awful part of the book.

I thought Repo Virtual was a quick romp of a read but with more than a nod to the satiric and the clever. The ending was a cracker.

Whistleblower II

Warning, science fiction readers, warning: this is not a science fiction story. This is a story I wrote for a course with Michigan University – Storytelling for Social Change. It was a five week course presented on Future Learn which is part of the MOOC provision. (It is the forerunner to a degree course which is available.) I found it fascinating, elegant, prescriptive and informative. I wrote this story to fit the parameters of the course: it did not grow organically as the stories in my book, Here and There, were created. One of the best aspects of such a course is the other students who come from such a raft of different experiences.

He could hear Alex behind him with the group standing close to the fire. Alex was sandpapering away at the flaws in the teams, the coaches and the referee. No change there, then! Fred had no desire to join them. He sighed and rested his forearms on the bar. It was a good height to ease the stiffness in his back. He’d spent four hours bent over in a tight space to refit a shower unit and a couple of hours hunched over his computer tapping out his invoices with two fingers. Fred took a large gulp of his ale.

   It had been an intense game and he was just happy to savour the unexpected win. He looked at the big screen which took up most of one wall of the bar. It had been almost half-an-hour since the rugby match had ended and the talking heads’ mouths were opening and shutting like scallops grabbing for floating debris.

   The men, who’d cheered, swayed and groaned in response to the flow of the game, had broken out of their tight pack and had settled into small groups chatting about the game and other matters. Locals, uninterested in the match and not bothered about wearing some red badge of allegiance, trickled into The Dog and Fox and weaved their way through the cheerful throng to the lounge to order food. A couple of strangers had also walked in, a few moments after the match had ended, and taken seats in a corner of the bar room. Fred stared for a moment at the dark, thin men in pastel polo necks, jackets and crisp jeans. They were engrossed in their conversation.

    Fred shrugged. He liked being in The Fox. The bar room was large but the low ceilings, tarred oak beams and posts made it friendly. It had comfortable, quiet lighting, a scattering of round tables and black-framed photographs of nineteenth century mining machinery tended by thin, stooped men. He was probably related to some of them. He looked back at the large television screen glad it was back on mute. He shook his head as he heard Alex still sounding off about the flaws in performance. Fred looked at his nearly empty glass and wondered if he would head home but the room was warm and he was reluctant to begin the twenty minute walk home in that bitter wind. He nodded at Rhys, also leaning on the bar, who was staring at the screen with an open mouth. Fred looked back at the TV to find it had switched to a vividly coloured cola advertisement. He snorted with disgust. ‘Sweet Caroline!’ he muttered to himself. ‘Grown men and they’re still stuck at the lolly age!’

   He watched as the two stubble-faced, muscled men swallowed the last of their cans of coke, their thick throats exposed as they tipped up their faces for the last drops. He watched as the actors abandoned their tins on the stone wall on top of which they were sitting, slung their arms around each other and kissed. He could see it was a deep and passionate kiss. Fred reared back in shock, ‘Bloody hell!’

   ‘Makes you want to heave,’ volunteered Rhys. ‘Bloody poofs!’

   Fred hesitated. He wasn’t sure about why he was upset. ‘It’s not that,’ he ventured.

   Alex swung around from haranguing a man he worked with occasionally with his opinion and caught the last of screen shot of the handsome men walking towards the grounds of a football ground, Cardiff was instantly recognizable, holding hands. ‘Disgusting,’ he enunciated. ‘We ought to put a stop to it.’

   Fred felt he was on a slippery slope. ‘It’s not that,’ he repeated more loudly. He was struggling to bring the reason for his dismay about the screen kiss to the surface.

   ‘There’s too much of this pervert stuff being pushed down our throats,’ growled Alex. He hitched the belt which held up his heavy belly and spoke in a louder voice so it interrupted the conversations scattered around the large bar room. ‘I worry about our kiddies seeing all this filthy canoodling. It shouldn’t be allowed!’ Rhys gave a bit of a cheer. The publican was standing back from the bar and he had a furrowed face as he listened to Alex.

   It struck Fred like a ton of bricks that it was the canoodling he didn’t like. He hated watching anything on the telly or in a film where the actors, male or female, had a session slobbering all over each other’s faces. He disliked seeing dogs being allowed to lick human faces. It was rude and uncontrolled. Kissing was a private. It was crass to involve strangers in an intimate moment. ‘Alex, it’s any lovey-dovey stuff on TV I have a problem with,’ said Fred. ‘I don’t care who is kissing who I just don’t want to watch it.’

   ‘What!’ Alex leaned in closer and his beery breath was warm on Fred’s face. ‘You’re not in favour of this sort of unnatural carry-on?’ Alex paused for dramatic effect. ‘We ought to do something about it. Take a stand!’ Alex was the centre of attention now. His eyes roved over the gathering of men he had known since school and had mixed with in sport and at work; he paused and looked for an intense moment at the strangers in the corner.

   Fred felt a whole lot more was riding on this conversation than he really understood. He didn’t understand how his flinch at kissing had suddenly grown wings and become a big issue in the pub. He liked simple solutions and a straightforward life; he liked to get on with his job, meet his mates for some beers and spend the rest of the time at home. This situation, with Alex trying to rouse the crowd, made him very uncomfortable.

    Fred thought he’d finish his beer and head home. ‘Are with us on this, Fred? Alex stared hard at him. ‘You’re not going to stand aside and let these gay types take over the place?’ Fred and the assembled men followed the turn of his head turn and saw how his eyes fixed on the strangers in the bar. Alex leaned in towards Fred again. ‘Well, are you with us on this, Fred? Are you going to stick up for our standards?’

    The pressure to agree with Alex was strong but Fred was uneasy about the way he was being herded by Alex and he did not speak.

   Alex pushed Fred with a thick forefinger. He was still using a big voice that carried into every corner of the room. ‘Come on, Fred, you’re not going all squeaky on me are you?’ Alex looked at his audience and stepped back from the bar, separating himself from Fred and leaving him marooned. ‘Well, Freddo’, Alex drawled, using the nickname Fred had so detested at school, ‘I thought you were a bit more of a man than that. Maybe you’re man lover yourself. Maybe you should join your friends, those pansies over there?’

    Fred was jolted by the attack and then felt a surge of rage; he could feel his skin flush and his teeth grit. He saw that smug look of satisfaction settle on Alex’s face as he assumed Fred would scamper to join the real men.

   ‘You’re a nightmare, aren’t you, Alex?’ said Fred in a loud flat voice. ‘You’re always trying to drum up a bit of trouble. Looking for another opportunity to sic the dogs onto some poor sod? Trying to turn us into your pet poodles and send us off on your dirty errands? The desire to smack Alex’s sneering mouth into a different shape was almost overwhelming. He took a deep breath. ‘I wouldn’t go along with a bloody thing you say!’

   Alex lurched back in shock. He glanced around at his audience and, apart from Rhys who was too drunk to follow what was going on, he could see the mood could swing either way among the local lads, though Matt, the publican, was staring at him with his arms folded and a thin mouth. Alex hesitated as he weighed up whether to laugh it off and back down or stick it to Fred. He desire to humiliate Fred, so he’d creep out of the pub, and arrange the energetic expulsion of the strangers, whose well-dressed presence infuriated him, could not be resisted.

  ‘Well, Freddo, it looks like you spent too much time under the old lady’s thumb during lockdown. ‘We understand,’ and Alex nodded at the circle of men listening closely to the exchange, ‘we know she’s a bit of bleeding heart but, seriously mate, I never took you for a pansy planter. Maybe you should pick up your handbag and prance away home!’

   Fred looked at Alex and finally recognized him for the enemy. He felt a pang of sorrow and then a tremendous sense of release. ‘Alex, you’re a nasty bastard and I’ve let you goad me like a pit pony for too long. I am not going along with it. You like dishing out the insults, don’t you? Only happy when you are grinding some fella’s face in the mud over an inflated insult when you do better to mind your own business! You are an absolute and total arsehole!’

   Alex laughed long so his audience could really catch on about how little he cared that Fred had just defied him. ‘Who cares what you think, you thick-witted little prick.’ He laughed at his own wit but was secretly dismayed that no-one chuckled with him.

   Fred let a history of repressed words bubble out of his chest. ‘You led us down the garden path over that young man working down at the Mike’s machine works. I’ve felt bad about that. You egged us on, Alex, just like you are doing now. Talked about the way all these immigrants had taken our jobs. And you said just those same words then: “We oughta take a stand.” Fred mimicked Alex. ‘We gave that poor bloke such a sledging he packed up and went back to Bristol.’ Fred paused and then announced, ‘It was wrong.’

   There was a murmur from the crowd, the same crowd who’d been there about a year ago. ‘Mike was gutted! It took him six months to find a machinist as good as the one we’d chased off,’ Matt suddenly said and moved down his side of the bar to stand closer to Fred.

   Alex held up his hands, palms out, ‘Hey, the small fry get chewed up but those immigrants are driving down our wages. Get with the bigger picture, Fred. You’re not sharpest tool in the box, you can trust me on that.’ Alex shared his sneer with the crowd behind him. ‘Don’t side with the bloody liberals on this one! You let one of them get a toe hold, an immigrant or a homosexual, and suddenly the place is overrun.’ Alex pointed his chin at the two, now silent men, in the corner of the room. ‘You’ve got to show them they’re not welcome while you can.’

   ‘I may not dance words around like you, Alex, but I’m not getting sucked in by you again. It was unfair, then. It wasn’t right, then. You’re the one changing us. You’re the one making us afraid and angry. I feel dirty listening to you. The way you go on is vicious.’

   ‘Fred, Fred, you’ve got your knickers in a twist over a bit of banter. That was then. No sweat. Don’t fret about it. We were in it together. We just gave the lad a scare, no-one got hurt.’

   ‘It hurt me,’ and the cry came from Fred’s gut. ‘I still feel bad to think I went along with it, the filthy language and the threats. I’ve felt like shit over that piece of carry-on last year.’ He stared around at the men with hot eyes and they shifted their feet and a few nodded heads. ‘And now you want to do it again?’

   Suddenly, Lewis shouldered his way forward. ‘Fred, what do you think of the opinion the referee won the match for us as much as our team. We’ll just run over the main points of the game again.’ Lewis and Fred were joined at the bar by several others. The crowd of men separated into small quiet groups. Matt put five pints on the bar and waved away the money. Fred was trembling. He felt Lewis pat his back a couple of times and it felt as if a sack of coal had been lifted off his shoulder. In the corner the strangers has recommenced their conversation. Behind Lewis Fred could see Alex’s mouth opening and shutting like a guppy’s but not a sound had issued by the time he turned his attention back to conversation.

  ‘A good ref is essential for a decent game,’ he declared. He would stay awhile longer in The Fox as it was only polite. ‘That French bloke didn’t let the game flow not like our Nigel Owens would have. He was the best referee in the business.’ Fred had strings attached to this statement. Owens had come out as gay in 2007.

‘He was a good man with a whistle,’ agreed Lewis drily and the group around him laughed.

Wendy Lodwick Lowdon

March 2021

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott

Ver y occasionally a reader like me will come across a book and just think WOW! The Rain Heron is that book. It is masterpiece: it demonstrates how it is possible to write exquisitely, precisely and with a sense of contained power and how to make the best use of the flexibility of fantasy, of magic realism, in this story of devastation and hope.

The rain heron, powerful, pervasive, elusive and vulnerable, is an analogy of the environment. It is not tame, nor predictable and, like a temperature gauge, it encapsulates the health and whimsical generosity of the environment.

The novel begins with a mythological tale, like ones told around a fire by a storyteller, with a rain heron blessing a poor farmer so that her lands bloom and are rich with produce and she in turn is generous with her excess. Jealousy also blooms and the rain heron is attacked and the blessing is withdrawn from everyone. Suddenly the novel changes place and we are in a small coastal village where the fisherfolk have a symbiotic arrangement with squid. The squid are a rare source of colour additive. Enter an intrepid entrepreneur. Arnott manages to create a sympathy for the intruder despite his destructiveness.

The novel, The Rain Heron, switches to another place and this time the reader is on a mountain which harbours a hermit, a damaged but morally intact woman, who has an intimate understanding of the environment which supports her. The hermit is hunted and tortured by Harker, a soldier with a mission she is determined to fulfil, so she will give up the secret dwelling of the rain heron. The pace of the story accelerates and the people are on a collision course with each other and with the environment.

The Rain Heron looks at the delicate balance between being ardent and tunneled-visioned youth and destructive rebellion; between being a seeker and an appropriator; and between being a talented, resourceful soldier and a cruel, cold performance of duty. The saving graces are the individuals, such as Harker acknowledges when she tells Daniel why he is on her team, ”Others would have called it softness, even weakness. But I saw you there that day, huddled with all the other involuntary recruits, and I thought: there’s a person who’ll probably do the right thing, given the opportunity.’

The Rain Heron is truly wonderful, using that word in its whole connotation, book.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

It has taken me a while to work around to reviewing this splendid book. It is a complex and clever piece of fiction which required careful reading. I have never been to New York, the place where the action in novel occurs, and it has added another layer of persuasion as to why I should. I must say at this point that New York is more than a backdrop in The City We Became, it is a character; indeed, it is character whose multiplicity of personalities are encapsulated in its chosen human representatives. The humans are the avatars of the aspiring city; a city which about to be given status as a discernible separate space to which its inhabitants belong in thought, heart and mind.

The birth of New York into a city, which overrides the nation which surrounds it like Paris, London or Hong Kong, is being undermined by The Enemy. This Enemy usually appears as the Woman in White who has too many tentacles, is monstrously large or deceptively small, has teeth, seeks to bribe or suborn or persuade or kill individuality. To this being, which spreads its conformity and contamination across the city, the imminent birth of a city into a distinctive character is anathema. This grotesque being seems to be the offspring of dreadful creations of H.P. Lovecraft, the Cthulhu. She invades ordinary New Yorkers and hollows them out and fills them with bile and pap.

The struggle of the city to retain its particular style and manner is exemplified in the chosen avatars of New York’ Districts or I should say, Burroughs. They, individually and representatively, struggle to resist the lures and damages caused by attacks in the form of multi-national corporations, avoiding the battle, the loss of local monuments and history, the watering down of its hard-edged culture, losing aspiration and hope, and giving up the cause, the city, for money.

Yet, the big story though fascinating, is not as engaging as the human avatars who gradually form, despite wariness, fear and hostilities, into a supportive, formidable team to resist the blandishments and pressures of the Woman in White. N.K. Jemisin has created. They leap off the page. My particular favourite, today, is Padmini but Brooklyn just rocks and; and I am enthralled by them all even the damaged, bigoted and vulnerable Aislyn.

The City We Became is certainly worth reading more than once. It is a fabulous book. It has cemented my desire to visit New York.

Among Others by Jo Walton & Leviathan Wakes by J.S.A. Corey

These books are better reviewed with reference to the opinion of the science-fiction book group, especially as it was dramatically divided on Among Others by Jo Walton.  RE, RH, WL and DC loved the book; ‘gulped it down’ said RE.  KM was ambivalent and BL and TR took against it.  We echoed the reviews the book, though it won a raft of prizes, as some loved it and others did not like it at all.  We did discuss whether it whether it actually could be classed as science fiction; which led to an extended discussion (likely to re-emerge) as to the line between science fiction and fantasy.  We took on board BL’s comment about listing within a book science fiction books does not a science-fiction book make.  According to RH Mori’s list, Mori is the avid reader and main character of Among Others, is available on-line to scroll through and is over 140 titles. We decided Jo Walton had inched into science fiction as it was about alien influences, disguised as the misshapen fairies whose language and concepts, which could only be rendered imperfectly. The sheer number of books Mori read also constituted science- fiction, her book club which she had wished into being to be her Karass, could read all the books of one author in a week!  WL said the book responded to some of the issues raised by Cherryh, the writer of the last science fiction book referred to in Jo Walton’s novel, concerning the ‘power of wanting and wishing’ as a malign influence and the difficulty of trying to measure cause and effect when in the middle of the event.

We all thought Jo Walton wrote well.  Some were critical of how the character was not critical of Tolkien and we went off on that interesting tangent for a while. DC said the idea of a protecting Karass comes from Vonnegut’s Cats-Cradle.  The diary approach did get a lot of criticism although we felt is was a pretty good representation of a girl seeking to escape, to alter and to mitigate hostile forces.  BL’s e-mail with its scathing analysis can be summarized  as ‘ye Gods it is about fairies!!’ and KM’s written analysis along the lines of good but slow, were read by the group and after our discussion began to wane and it set us off enthusiastically discussing the novel again. Among Others certainly was a stimulating book. Those who liked it plan to read it again and look for more nuanced references.

leviathan wakes

The discussion on Leviathan Wakes was not as intense or as interesting.  The book was voted by all to be pretty good and the plot and characters were compelling enough to make it easy to read to the end, although we were all agreed 500 pages was a bit much.  The characters kept it flowing and we liked the comments BL made on the names of the characters which showed another science fiction book making references to others.  Corey’s book was a bit of a cross between a cowboy gang in space but ticking all the politically correct boxes with mixed crews ethnically and in gender.  We did disagree on the development of the female characters: some felt Julia was convincing but others just a prop and some felt Naomi injected energy but other readers said she was too sketchy. So the depiction of women was a hung jury.  WL disliked the exploitation scenarios on the asteroids and felt they only existed to allow ‘bloody medieval fights’.  Dialogue was good said TR and DC.  We were divided over whether Miller or Holden were the most significant characters.  WL liked the virus and Venus made us laugh. The ‘taddahh’ as to a sequel was palpable but that’s all to the good said RE who is a fan of Corey’s writing.  DC said the use of human crews was unrealistic and robotics was underused but on the other hand he really liked the way the author kept referring to the human limitation in relation to time and stresses.

This is How You Lose the Time War

Amal El- Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This is How You Lose the Time War is a gem. The authors have packed so much into this book. It is a salutatory demonstration of the power of good writing which allows the reader scope to appreciate, imagine and think.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone have written a love story. Red and Blue (the choice of primary colours has its own permutations) are warriors and infiltrators fighting on opposite sides of war, a war which slides backwards and forwards through time to rework history, between Agency and Garden. Such intense names for the opposing sides with so many connotations! Red and Blue are deployed to undo the making, the structure and creation, of the other side: what one makes is anathema to the other. They fight each other directly and indirectly.

One encounter begins a competition but within a space of time, and across time, they relish their communications and write spirited and secret missives and leave them for each other in extra-ordinary places. This is geo-caching writ large. Competition surrenders to admiration and succumbs to love.

The struggle turns onto maintaining their liaison without discovery: individuality and choice in a war which denies its agents such. This is How You Lose the Time War is a cascade of exotic descriptions, historical memes, evocative metaphor and literary references. It is a captivating and energetic novel about traitor angels, fallen genies, master machines and conditioned concepts who write poetry and create codes of love.

Such an elegant novel. Thank you Amal and Max.

The Sunken Land Begins To Rise

M John Harrison

M. John Harrison’s novel, The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again, has taken me a while. I have friends writing to me about ‘slow food’ but I was too engaged with my ‘slow reading’. There is no way I could read this quickly as it is too dense and the novel, at times, moved at a snail’s pace.

I am not sure I have fully grasped the meaning of this book; a reread is called for no doubt. Never-the-less I have sufficient understanding and impressions to be very impressed; and impressed is the correct word as I find the imagery and characterizations haunting. One of the reasons it resonates is due to part of the novel being set in and around Ironbridge in Shropshire; Harrison’s descriptions are evocative, accurate and unexpectedly sinister.

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again

The environment, and its characters, are rocked with unease. They are dislocated and dysfunctional in their lives which makes them vulnerable. Shaw, now a middle-aged man, has relapsed into loss and disaffection. He lives in unpleasant rented accommodation and is employed, in a desultory way, by an obsessive pursuer of the idea of a watery other. Tim Swann sends Shaw on missions he neither understands nor believes as he builds up a map of sightings and evidence. Shaw retains two tenuous connections to his pre-Swann life: his visits to an old people’s home which contains mother, though her mothering was nomadic, full of fabrications, neglectful and sometimes cruel; and his intermittent love affair with Victoria.

The novel is, for the most part, set in a futuristic London which is humid and dank. A lot of the slow motion action occurs by the river and Harrison excels at describing the various attitudes of water. Shaw represents the part of the population which has fallen out of use and purpose; they live on the edges and in the gaps of the city and grasp for meaning through Tim’s cult, seances, failing businesses, barter and futile visits to pubs. This population also seems to be being preyed upon but the predator is as amorphous and unconvincing as Tim’s rambling book of water people sightings. Characters like Ob and Emma seem oblivious to the undercurrent of threat and conspiracy which creates a powerful tension.

In Shropshire the febrile and energetic Victoria lives in the house she has inherited from her mother and gradually falls into a swound of partial sightings, lost friends and increasing struggles to distinguish reality. The dampness, rivers, pools and lakes overwhelm her, though for a while she unsuccessfully seeks solace with Shaw in London, before she disappears like several others in the corroding heart of the industrial revolution.

Robert MacFarlane recommended this book and it is perfectly easy to see why as M, John Harrison has a wonderful facility with words and has managed to make this reader stick with, and even like, the drearily disconnected Shaw. It is also perfectly understandable why this novel won The Goldsmith’s Prize 2020.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark

I had hoped to read Black God Drumming by this author but, unable to get a copy, I settled for The Haunting of Tram Car 015 which turned out to be a delightful find.

The novella is a marvellous and witty form of steam punk. The story is set in Cairo in the early twentieth century where the combination of harnessing the magic, supplied when al-Jahiz ‘bored a hole into the Kaf..opening the doorway to the other realm of djinn’, and technology, such as balloon and cable cars, has made Egypt foremost among nations.

The officials, Agent Hamed Nasr and the new recruit, Agent Onsi Youssef, are called to Ramses tramcar station because one of the vehicles has been mothballed because passengers were being attacked by a vicious entity. The struggle to discover the nature of the supernatural being which possesses the tramcar occurs against the backdrop of a crucial moment in Egyptian women’s fight for independence and the vote. Indeed, the several vivid women prove to hold the solution to freeing tram car 015, which means Hamed also has to meet the challenge of dealing with strong women despite his ingrained assumptions and prejudices. Agent Hamed is further constrained by his budget which further hampers his efforts to solve the haunting problem.

I loved the dextrous way P. Djeli Clark interweaved mythical stories of the area with vivid snapshots of the variety of cultures in Egypt from which they are sourced. It is treasure of a book which made me laugh as well as kept me enjoying the mystery and its solution until the end.

The Hair-Carpet Weavers by Andreas Eschbach

This book was really very grim in parts; though the overriding sense of the ridiculousness of making human hair rugs, however much it depleted society and the environment, kept it from being too dark until the very end.

The Hair Carpet Weavers By Andreas Eschbach

The Hair-Carpet Weavers proved to be about revenge in that the whole energy and purpose of ‘so many planets’ (the author has used awesome numbers in terms of years, people and resources), even unto their depletion, was to make rugs made of human hair to be laid end to end. The mystery of the end purpose of the rugs into which millions poured their energy and artistic talent is not revealed until the very last: I thought the plot of the book was clever as I did not finish connecting the dots until then.

There is no linear character development as Eschbach stitches together cameos of the various characters, mostly unconnected, except each experience threw light on the how an Emperor’s revenge was so pervasive in that it created a horrible, regimented coercion, were effective but some were definitely more powerful than others. The author delighted in the unfinished quality of these characters though I felt they were all similar in style and I was frustrated by his unimaginative, old testament depiction of women.  Even the rebellious characters proved to be trapped by their conditioning and their limited knowledge! Was Berenko Kebar Jubad, who stabbed the Emperor, actually infected with a disease (another revenge) or was it a form of self-harm?    

The Hair-Carpet Weavers made me think about such things as Prometheus chained to his rock; the pharaohs expending slaves and resources in a pissing contest; the impossibility of escaping from one’s conditioning; honour killings; and the difference between casual and calculated cruelty. I thought in very few lines the author, Eschbach, captured the essence of thuggery with the attack and murder of the teacher.    

This book is an extended metaphor about the stupidity of continuing on an illogical path and parallels with the current behaviour of the human population. It also made me think about another book, The Year of the Angry Rabbit by Russell Baddon, which I read in the sixties. It was a satirical science fiction novel, which altered my thinking, and shares a common theme with The Hair-Carpet Weavers, being about the destructiveness of the juggernaut of elite top-heavy power. I thought I might buy it to reread but when I looked it up it is going for between £350 and £850!!!! I think it is available to read via libraries or audible. I wish I nicked from the hotel bookcase after all!   

The Hair-Carpet Weavers by Andrea Eschbach is well worth reading but not, definitely not uplifting, unless you call love in the cracks sufficient unto the day.