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Thursday, 30 July 2015

Let Them Eat Nettles!

A 24 year old man from Devon recently set a world record after eating 96 feet of nettles in an hour (Precut into two ft units) He was taking part in the World Nettle Eating contest at the Bottle Inn in Marshwood Dorset. A record was also set in the women's nettle eating event by Naomi Harris from Chard Somerset who got through 58ft of nettles.

Meanwhile on a planet far from ours we have the House of Lords obsessing over food.

Complaints by Peers about their quality of food in the House of Lords included such horrors as having to wait for too long for a sandwich, and a 'Supreme of Hake' with too hard a crust. Another peer complained: "This week with the roast meat we have had carrots, parsnip and celeriac so that with the roast potatoes there is a considerable excess of carbohydrates." He was met with an apology and an assurance that in future there would be more spring veg

Another moaned about the "yoghurt being too heavy." Bear in mind the eight restaurants and bars in the House of Lords are subsidised and cost the taxpayer nearly £2million. The subsidies mean that a Lord can enjoy 'prawn and lobster meat folded into avrugia caviar for a mere £10. There will be some who think the noble lords are but troughers, others who think the catering staff need try a little harder.

The orange bra wearing Lord Sewell recently caught sniffing cocaine from prostitutes' breasts expressed similar unhappiness that his Parliamentary allowance and expenses were barely adequate to fund his activites. I think we can exonerate Parliamentary caterers from this particular grievance.  It is quite clear the niggardly tax-payer is at fault in this instance.

There will be others who disagree, suggesting perhaps that Peers should eat nettles.

Friday, 24 July 2015

A minor miracle

Wales is studded with places beginning with 'Llan' which is often denoted as a settlement centred on an ancient and noted church. In fact Llan originally denoted a hermit's cell, or in reality a group of hermit cells, because in the early celtic church, a holy man would attract like minded followers. It was the Norman Conquest that imposed churches and a more organised religion. Hence the church at Llancarfen. There are a few remaining Norman touchs, but most is a relatively modern C14th. 

Things took a turn for the worse in the C16th when the boy king Edward VI, and his regent the Duke of Suffolk, ordered the destruction of ornamentation, stained glass and wall paintings. By the Cromwellian period over 97% of church art had been destroyed - or to depress you in a different way, a mere 3% of the glories of medieval church art remains. Our own C17th Taliban at work. 

All this  makes what occurred at Llancarfen a minor miracle. 

The easiest way to erase wall paintings was to simply limewash them. In time the white became grubby and every five years or so it was redone until by the late C20th the limewash had become a crust. 

It was when some external work was being done that a fragment of crust cracked and fell from the wall, revealing a glimpse of what lay beneath. Since then part of the interior wall has been painstakingly restored. This wasn't the only minor miracle. A C19th vicar, in line with all things gothic, had planned to strip everything down to bare stone. Luckily he died, or ran out of money.

What is lovely about the paintings so far revealed is a fine mix of naivity and modernity. The faces have personality and life in the style of a contemporary comic book.
Here the story of St George and the Dragon comes to life. The story had it that a dragon was terrorising a kingdom and could only be kept at bay by a regular gift of two sheep. Fearful of running out of sheep, the community offered it one sheep and a young girl chosen by lot. When the king's daughter was chosen. He was distraught. Enter St. George. Here you see the king and his wife staring out from their turret; the princess with her companion lamb, and St George ramming a spear down the dragon's throat. Our Lady is blessing her knight.

I love the flamboyant crests to his helmet and elbows, the determination in his face.
This is interesting, the way the artist continues the picture round the corner of the window.You see George's spear going right through the dragon's head

Elsewhere on the wall is a depiction of the seven deadly sins. Here beautifully drawn devils are not so much tempting but forcing these hapless folk into:
                                                                    Greed and sloth
                                                             Despair, Pride and Anger

And the sinners, all of them, are poised over gaping-jawed serpents - Gateways to Hell. What is clear is that these would have led down to an equally wonderful depiction of Hell. Unfortunately an earlier vicar inadvertently destroyed it when building a short-lived vestry at the back. All that remains is bare stone.

 Finally a reminder that all is vanity, and death awaits everyone.
Here we have a C15th dandy wearing a Monmouth cap, and he's not looking very happy. On the inside of the window you can see why. Death (not a skeleton but a rotting cadaver with a  toad for a heart and snakes in his belly) is dragging him where he would rather not go.
I on the other hand was looking forward to  to a fine lunch at the Fox and Hounds and two beers.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Clay Cross: 6 Ways To Mental

Some people wonder about the meaning of life. With me it's death and whether half of those punks I've consigned to the other side will be waiting for me when it's my turn to choose a coffin and shroud. I glanced across the room at where Sheri was sitting, and grinned. She'd have chosen hers already and nail-paint to match. There'd be others beyond the veil waiting for her too, but she wouldn't be thinking about them. She'd be wondering which saint to seduce first, assuming things went to plan and she didn't end up some place hotter. Old Nick would have one helluva surprise.
Jeez, she was reading my mind...but no.
"Mac is waiting," she said.
"-6 Ways to Mental, Mac."
"Jeez, You've brought me a fruit-cake?"
"His book, Clay. 6 Ways to Mental." She planted a kiss on my jaw and knocked me to Heaven. If I wanted more I was gonna have to talk to a guy about a book. 
What is your latest book about?
‘6 Ways to Mental’ continues a year after ‘6 Ways to Die.’ Margarite Abernathy copes with PTSD from the brutality she lived fighting terrorists working to unleash a worldwide plague. Outbreaks continue to flare, and her brother quietly battles the terrorists behind them, drawing Mar into the horror again.

You are highly prolific. Is there an optimum number of books published before you begin to make money.
I’ll tell you when I reach that point *smile*

Which two pieces of advice would you give to a new 'Indie' writer?
Two bits wouldn’t help. There is so much to learn, the craft so demanding, the competition and obstacles overwhelming. It is like a neuro surgeon only taking ‘the important’ classes in medical school.

Which fictional character would you like to have a close relationship with?
My seemingly autistic character (you have to read and decide for yourself if he isn’t just weird) Augie in my SEEker series would be cool to hang with.

Which four literary characters would you like to invite to dinner, and why?
I watch the news during dinner, so would rather go out for wings and beer for lunch. My character Carter from my werewolf series would be entertaining, as would Toni from my SF series. I think ogres Morgan and Ike from my Black Lake series would round out the table well.

What are you currently reading?
I’ve just started a dystopian I may not finish by Erica Stevens, ‘The Survivor Chronicles’

Which four books do you wish you had written?
Anything by Anne McCaffrey (the earlier books she wrote herself).

Are you ever afraid that one day you will stop enjoying writing?
I got over that about ten years ago.

Every writer has a weakness, what is yours?
I like to snack too much when I’m editing.

Which author makes you jealous and why?
Any author who is making a living with their writing.

To agent or not to agent? Why or why not?
All the indies who are surviving on their writing first got recognized traditionally, or sold enough to get picked up traditionally (e.g. Wool), so there must be a lesson there.

Has a book ever made you angry. If so, which one?
I read mostly indie titles to support ‘my kind.’ I delete about nine for every one I finish. There are too many self-published books that never should have been published, by authors who don’t know the craft, don’t know the basics of formatting. THAT makes me angry. They are making all of us look like weenies.

Is self publishing the new 'slush-pile’?
I don’t think so. The only titles the traditional publishing components (agents, publishers) look at, hit big sales before they ever look at them, so they let the market (and the author’s marketing skills) drive what they consider. They certainly don’t have to dredge the ‘slush-pile.’

Elmore Leonard listed ten rules, one of which is: 'Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel.' What rule or piece of advice would you add to the list, and if you know his ten rules, which one would you happily see broken?
I think all of Elmore’s rules are common sense, if not literal. Rule one, don’t start with the weather. Well, if it is pertinent, the protag is in a sinking boat in the middle of a hurricane, what else would you start out with? The point is…write about what is most important in sequence, to tell the story so that you never drop the reader’s attention or piss her off. All ten rules reflect that goal.

I read the blurb as Sheri saw to R. Mac Wheeler's more intimate needs, putting his coat on, her hand lingering on his shoulder longer than it goddamned should: Nightmares. Panic attacks. Depression. Margarite is hammered by the typical issues of a seventeen year old loner, whose parents sympathized with insane people intending to collapse civilization. Jeez, the dame had problems. The few who care about Mar have more concerns. Her drinking. Fighting. Jumping out of airplanes. Heh,  heh, heh, that's better, though her brother sounds more than a jerk. I gave Sheri a look. The book sounded good but my jaw was still tingling, and Sheri had promised me more.

Thursday, 9 July 2015


I was teaching the Schleswig-Holstein question to a bunch of New York Sophomores, who liked much about me, especially my accent, but couldn't get their heads around this weird little quarrel between the German Confederation and Denmark in the mid C19th. They brightened up when I quoted Lord Palmerston:
 “The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.” But by the time I'd finished explaining it half of them wished they were dead, or at least mad, and eitherway all of them forgot about it as soon as the lesson ended. 

It's a tough call teaching Schleswig Holstein on a hot June day in New York, almost as tough as trying to teach it in Newport and trying to ignore a Head of Biology  urging me vehemently to attack Russia; all this in front of some very bemused students. I know it sounds like a nightmare, or at least a very bad dream, but this was what a game had reduced us to.

The Game is called Diplomacy and demands 4 to seven players and more time than sense. It's a very simple game which involves a large map of pre 1914 Europe - essentially a Europe of empires. The only random factor in the game is who gets which country. 

Each player is given two armies and a navy except Russia which is given an extra piece, and Britain which is given two navies and an army.

Each player is allowed a Spring and Autumn manoeuvre, which simply involves writing down which adjacent province or sea your piece is going to move to. The aim is to land on a vacant city of a neutral country, and if you retain it over the two seasons you to gain an extra army or navy --- and so on---and so on.  Now this in itself seems remarkably boring, childishly simple but I have seen marrages strained and staffrooms split in opposing camps, each accusing the other of lies and betrayal.  


Because before each move you make secret but 'sincere' alliances with one or two of the other players in the game. For example if German moves westwards, France will obvious seek an alliance with Russia. The whole thrust and momentum of the game is either fooling or being fooled in the matter of who promises what; negotiations, firm but secretive handshakes, followed by inevitable betrayal.  

The beauty of the game is how closely it matches the European flashpoints of the Edwardian era. Austria, Russia and Turkey both seek the Balkans, Italy will ally with anyone to stop France, Turkey or Austria from dominating the Mediterranean. Britain, Germany and France seek to control Holland and Belgium. But then France is also tempted by neutral Spain, Africa, the Mediterranean.... Can it trust Germany not to attack it from the North?  Britain and Russia seek to dominate Scandinavia. Germany feels surrounded!  Alliances are everything and so too double dealing and treachery. So much to promise. So much to gain.

It is only when the written orders are read out that you find who has betrayed who. Some alliances are unexpectedly built on rock, others on sand, and empires and relationships founder on the basis of promises not kept.

This then was the context of the Head of Biology bursting into my lesson with urgent whispers that a British - German attack on Russia would prove overwhelming. He didn't know that only an hour before, the Head of English had slipped into my Year 2 lesson on the Angevin Empire urging me to attack Germany. I think I said yes to the two of them. 

We were all grown men, professionals who had become so addicted to Diplomacy (the board was hidden in the Janitor's cupboard) that it began to take precedence over everything else. My firm conviction is that a bit of lunacy is absolutely essential in teaching, but they don't tell you that in College. 

PS The game is also a wonderful adjunct to teaching Modern European History.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Flags of Convenience

'Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,' Samuel Johnson wrote. He might have added and 'the flag is his weapon.'

So how do we judge the Confederate Flag in relation to others?

Under the Cross of St George Anglo-Norman Crusaders waded in blood following the fall of Acre. They waded in blood at every opportunity

Under the same cross and the Royal pennant, English armies devastated France during the Hundred Years War. English armies fanned across the countryside, raping, pillaging and killing all those who had no monetary value. It was total war, depriving French armies of manpower and food. After Agincourt, Henry V ordered the massacre of French prisoners because he feared they might regroup and launch a counter attack. Many were burnt alive.

Righteous murder continued in different guises and all under a flag. In 1649 the  massacre of Drogheda saw three hundred women and children burned alive in a church, Oliver Cromwell informed Parliament that: "That I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches."

And after Ireland, the world. Shaken by the Boer revolt in South Africa, the British invented the concentration camp where 10% of the Boer population died in one year. 
In Amritsar, 1919 British troops opened fire on a dense crowd of peaceful protestors and kept firing until they ran out of ammunition. In ten minutes they killed between 379 to 1000 protestors and injured many others. Though the officer in charge was censured, the British public labelled Reginald Dyer a hero and raised £26,000 for "The man who saved India."

The French and their flag are also associated with oppression and atrocity.Napoleon has many admirers but perhaps not in the Middle East and among Haitians. In 1800 Haiti, producing two thirds of the world's coffee and almost half of its sugar was one of the world's richest colonies. It belonged to France and was dependent on slave labour. Black slaves were lashed, and beaten to work and forced to wear tin muzzle to stop them eating the sugar cane. There were instances of rebellious slaves roasted over slow fires or filled with gunpowder and blown to pieces. And when they eventually rebelled under the brilliant and charismatic Toussaint L'Ouverture, Napoleon savagely crushed them and restored slavery.

The list goes on. Choose a flag. Where do we start?
Mao's great leap forward caused 45 million deaths in four years

Leopold II of Belgium was responsible for 8 million deaths in the Belgian Congo
between 1886 - 1908

And then we come to the big boys, and surprisingly Hitler comes out quite modest in comparison with Soviet Russia and Mao's China. Admittedly Stalin killed only 7million people between 1932 - 39, but Russian Governments between 1917 to 1987 murdered nearly 62 million in all.

Hitler murdered a mere 20 million.In this respect Mao wins the cigar

Though not on the same scale as Mao successive American governents did a pretty good job in depriving Native Americans of their land. That was done under the stars and stripes not the flag of the Confederacy, and so, too, were the massacres. Even today, rightly or wrongly, there are many places in the world with much the same feelings towards the American flag as Liberals have for the Confederate flag.

Historians quibble over figures and context so that it's matter of ideology and choice when it comes to disentangling 'heritage' from crimes committed under any particular flag. We forget some things and remember others. Every nation has its massacres - as well as its heroes. Scoundrels exploited flags and the na├»ve followed their spell, whether the so called 'White Trash' that fought for the Confederacy, or the 'Scum of the Earth that fought with Wellington at Waterloo. 

And over time flags lose their potency. The Union Jack that once flew over large parts of this planet is now largely tourist kitsch and this, I feel, was the way the flag of the Confederacy was heading, whether in terms of Southern Rock albums or TV programmes like The Dukes of Hazard. Its more negative connotations being lost in the anodyne wash of commercialism. 

Now however, and perhaps unwittingly, the flag has become potent again. In the early 1960's it achieved brief potency because of how racists used it to justify segregation. It was a dark rebellion. It has become potent again but for the opposite reasons. Driven from the mainstream it will achieve a dark glamour it hasn't seen for years and become a focal point for the aggrieved. There are parallels in Britain, where the Flag of St George was very nearly appropriated by by the far right. Might that have been commercially banned too?

Finally, and with every respect, I'd argue that the whole Confederate flag controversy is pretty convenient 'Displacement Activity.' It has proved an easier target in terms of 'doing something' than the powerful and organised gun lobby. It's an easier target than the big drug companies. The number of lone wolf killers who have been on various medications, legal or illegal should be provoking more thought than focusing on a flag.