Thursday, 31 December 2020

The Last Lines

 

 

I have just written the last lines on my novel for 2020:


“You once told me that you would follow me to the gates of Kur if I should ask it of you.”

“I did.”

“Well, my friend, I ask it of you now. I plan to ride to the gates of hell and bring them crashing from their hinges. Will you ride with me?”


Here's to a less apocalyptic year ahead...

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Book Raid

 

My friend Cathy is leaving the country, so I raided her bookshelf the other day. Picked up two China MiΓ©ville - she says The City is one of her favourites. Also a Bratt guide, which is the best travel guide for Rwanda. An Ian McEwan. My Sister is a Serial Killer, which I'm sure turned up as a recommendation on amazon a while back, and The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, simply because the cover is lovely and shiny. Also, Primo Levi, which is the only one of these - and the travel guide - which I've previously read. Picked up my copy in Auschwitz some years back and thought it was incredibly written. One for the top shelf. At this rate, I might have to get a second bookshelf made.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Natives

 

Just finished this. Such a good book:

From the first time he was stopped and searched as a child, to the day he realised his mum was white, to his first encounters with racist teachers - race and class have shaped Akala's life and outlook. In this unique book he takes his own experiences and widens them out to look at the social, historical and political factors that have left us where we are today.

Covering everything from the police, education and identity to politics, sexual objectification and the far right, Natives speaks directly to British denial and squeamishness when it comes to confronting issues of race and class that are at the heart of the legacy of Britain's racialised empire.

Though it took me a moment to get into because he started out by mentioning his sister is Ms. Dynamite, so I had to work through that earworm first.

This is going to be a waffle-out-loud sort of post, as race is a fascinating subject. I had quite an interesting upbringing, spending my early years in Leicester, which has the largest Diwali celebration outside India. My school was fairly evenly split between Caucasian and Indian British, predominantly Gujarati. At that time, I believe public schools were all obliged by law to deliver a Christian assembly once a week, but although we did the Nativity play each Christmas, we also celebrated Diwali just as much, making little diva lamps and colourful mandala patterns. There was a huge fireworks display in the park, with sweets, jewellery and saris everywhere. So, I grew up with a really positive experience of mixed cultures.

I later moved to a little village in the Midlands, with a CofE primary school. It was a lot less colourful in every sense. Then I went to an upper school of around 1,000 students, but only remember one black student, who, like Akala, had a white mother. Years later, when I came back from Africa for a visit, I remember stopping in my tracks when I saw a Rasta with dreadlocks walking across the village green. We ended up drinking down the pub later on and laughing about why I'd been so surprised. I mean, it really is a very white village. 

Though, with the Black Lives Matter movement, I have to say, as white as our school was, I do need to give a shout out to one particular teacher, Mr. Ditchburn. He was our humanities teacher and it's only now that I've come to realise how different he was. I was surprised, during BLM, how many people were saying they'd never learnt about slavery in school. I was puzzled by this, because I thought the national curriculum was universal across Britain and that other people must have had the same lessons as I had. But, when I talked to my friend Jo, she confirmed that she had never learnt about slavery in school. Whereas, I had. I very clearly remember Mr. Ditchburn rolling in the TV so that we could all watch Roots, and devoting a lesson to slavery, in which he unrolled large diagrams of the inside of a slave ship to show how close together everyone was packed and how uncomfortable it would have been. I was really surprised when I found out that my friends from other schools hadn't been taught this.

Growing up, I remember my dad taking me to Trafalgar Square to see Nelson Mandela appear on the balcony of South Africa House. I must have been about fifteen, and didn't really understand the significance at the time, but really glad to say I was there now. It was a very historic moment. My dad later went on to visit Robben Island and Khayelitsha.

I also remember a very awkward meal, where a friend of the family, for some reason still unknown to me today, decided to go on a paternalistic rant that went something like, 'What would your dad do if you ever came home with a black man, eh? You'd be out on your ear.' I was only about thirteen, and mortified to talk about sex in front of adults in any context, but he really didn't know my parents. They wouldn't care what colour or gender my partner was, so long as I was happy. But I couldn't understand at the time why my dad didn't stand up and tell him that. Later on, my dad explained that he didn't want to spoil the meal because the guy was a close friend of the host, whose birthday it was. Then he told me about the guy's life and it hadn't been a happy one. So, although I never warmed to the guy after those comments, I guess I understood not wanting to add to his unhappiness and picking the right time for a battle.

This book was also excellent at giving a history of racism and immigration in the UK, and dispelling myths such as  William Wilberforce and the British Empire ceasing slavery for purely altruistic, humanitarian reasons. There was a lot in there I didn't know.

Over the past several years, living in Rwanda, I've had some interesting experiences related to colour. Things, as a white person, I wouldn't have experienced in the UK, but I'm glad to have done because it's given me more perspective and opportunity to discuss race.

I was twenty-six when I first arrived and worried that people might hate me because of slavery, without fully comprehending that Rwanda remained an independent kingdom during that part of history. There wasn't a legacy of western slave traders here. People were much more concerned about western participation in the genocide. Someone once stopped a bus to move seats away from my friend when they realised she was French. If you don't understand that one, Google 'Turquoise Zone'. I was once asked, by a guy with a megaphone, whether  I was German, after Germany detained Rose Kabuye, and I was also once asked to stand up at a community meeting to explain 'my' government's actions after the UK very undiplomatically detained Emmanuel Karake, head of the Rwandan secret service. Obviously, there wasn't much I could say except, 'yeah, it doesn't make sense.' But those were much more specific, and justifiable, political gripes rather than racial ones.  

I do remember the first time I ever stepped out onto a busy street in Kigali and realised I was the only white person there. It was a strange feeling. I'd never experienced that before.

Back then, you used to get mzungu shouted a lot. It means 'foreigner' or 'white person'. People sometimes reached out to touch you or pinch you, and you often attracted a crowd of onlookers. You hardly ever hear mzungu in Kigali anymore, as it's a very cosmopolitan city now, but you still do in remote and rural areas. Sometimes it's just a statement, but sometimes you can tell by the way someone says it that it isn't meant kindly.  

Years ago, I was trying to catch a moto outside a club, very late at night, when a young Rwandan man, who was very drunk, leaned back on his moto and shouted, 'muzungu, go back where you came from.' His much more sober friend looked round in panic and apologised, but I laughed. It was such a strange experience, and one I think every white person should have at some point in their life - being the racial minority in another country. I was able to laugh it off because he was drunk and mouthing off. I think I would have been more offended if he'd shouted something misogynistic or homophobic, whereas it was just a weird experience for me to receive a racial slur like that, one used by white people towards black people so often. I strangely appreciated having had that experience. I often wonder what his own life experience had been that he said that to me, a complete stranger he didn't even know.

There's another interesting part in the book that talks about the sexualisation of African people by white people. Malcolm X also talks about it in his biography. Especially in terms of white women having sexual expectations of black men. Whereas, in Africa, there's a monitisation of white people, especially of black men towards white women. Though, that might be because more unmarried white women than men arrive as teachers and volunteers. It isn't uncommon to be sitting at a bus stop and have a guy ask you to find him a 'white wife.' The laugh is, many African men who think they want a white wife, soon find themselves woefully unprepared for a lippy British or American woman who speaks her mind openly, takes charge of the family finances and often a dominant role in decision-making. The point where dream and reality meet often collide with unpleasant consequences.

After over a decade of watching relationships, a huge number have broken down when it became apparent that the man had unrealistic financial expectations of the woman, based on skin colour. And, whereas it's true that poor white people in Africa are almost always financially better off than poor black people in Africa, it was the level of financial expectation that became problematic. See further down, where I mention Henri's book. He explains that unrealistic expectation brilliantly in My African Dream. Seriously, if you want a decent introduction to the race and culture gap between East Africa and America, check that out.

But be it sexual expectation, money, or both, a relationship founded on these stereotypes always tends to lead to a catastrophic breakdown in trust and self-confidence for at least one party. 

Which was another part of the book that I liked, it really looked at class systems and how race and class are so strongly intertwined. How the poor in any community, regardless of colour, have more in common with each other than the poor have with the elite. It's all horribly complex, and why there's never been a straightforward solution to ending either poverty or racism. It's a very long, ongoing conversation that many people still feel too insecure in their personal or national identities to engage in.

I've had some really interesting discussions about race with friends. I mentioned Henri, who wrote about his experiences first as a Rwandan refugee in Burundi, then spending seventeen years in the US, and having no clue what the KKK was, or that there even was racial tension in America, before arriving in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Like Akala's grandfather, it was a shock to him to discover that poor white people existed. He wrote an excellent book about it

There was a really interesting passage in Natives about the difference between African American and African identity:

While the physical legacies of white supremacy in Africa are clear enough, from the skin bleaching, to the colonial borders, to the languages of government, or from the segregation that is still so apparent in the former settler colonies, the state of spiritual and cultural crisis that [Richard] Pryor denotes with the appellation 'nigger' simply does not seem to exist in the same way for Africans... It's a quality that cannot be explained unless you have experienced both states. People who have experienced niggarisation, or lifelong racism, often walk as if they are apologising for their existence. It was only when I saw black people that did not walk that way that this became clear to me. To a degree, I also feel this same unquantifiable phenomenon in the Caribbean. There is a cultural and spiritual freedom that people have growing up in a place that they feel belongs to them and they belong to, however severe the material challenges in that place may be.

That's something I noticed immediately on arrival in Africa - the music. There used to be a club called Cadillac, and in my first week in-country I went dancing with friends. It struck me that there was Ugandan pop, Congolese rumba and plenty of Reggae being played, but not a single American rap song. I didn't hear the word 'nigger' once. Which gives some idea of what I associated with modern black music in the UK. Of course, there's blues and jazz, and plenty of reggae: Bob Marley, Eddy Grant and Macka B, but also a whole lot of rap, where women are bitches and hos and everyone sounds angry all of the time. But nothing in any club I've been to in either East or West Africa has ever been angry. Not like so much of the American rap music. 

There was another interesting bit in the book where Akala mentioned that heavy metal is huge in India, but almost unheard of among British Indian diaspora. The idea being that diaspora often cling to more traditional music and culture than those back home. I used to date a guy from Assam and he was a huge Metallica fan. We met at Rwanda's first rock night. I remember being surprised when he showed me photos of him and his friends at a Metallica concert in India and told me how big metal is over there. I don't recall any Indian friends in the UK having mentioned a love of metal before or seeing an Indian presence at the rock clubs I used to go to.

It is also true that talking about race in Africa is different to talking about it in the UK. Trevor Noah puts it really well: 



 

I've had so many open conversations here over a beer, that it would be hard to imagine having in the UK. It's usually a much more relaxed and often very intellectual and retrospective discussion about history and world politics. As Trevor Noah says, it's more about figuring out how we all got here and where we're all going. 

Often, when you get a group of expats together, they'll take the piss out of each other's cultures and countries, but it's a way of breaking the ice, and beneath that you do find a lot of respect for each person's individual background. When you're travelling around the world you implicitly understand that a person is not their country, or their political system, or personally responsible for their national history. So, conversations are easier to start and people are a lot less quick to take offense at an honest question. There's an objectivity that comes to a lot of people when they're a few thousand miles from their native country.

Not everybody, obviously, but a lot of them.

On a random note, something that surprised me a couple of years ago. A white American lady was staying with me and she wanted to get her hair braided, which is something many women do here. She liked the way it looked and her Rwandan colleagues wanted to do it for her before she went back to the States, but she said no because her brother-in-law was African American and she knew that he wouldn't approve of her having her hair braided in the African style, because he'd see it as cultural appropriation. This made me kind of sad. I could see how he might think of it that way, but at the same time, her friends wanted to do that for her, because it didn't even cross their minds that there would be a problem with this. So, she didn't get her hair done, and her friends didn't get to share that experience with her, because of a perception of racism that existed in America but not here.

I really enjoyed the book, The Silk Roads. I don't think it's ever really stopped, this flow of people, ideas, art, culture, languages and religions. It just makes me sad to see the introversion of places like the UK at the moment, closing down its borders and curtailing freedom of movement, when East Africa is doing the opposite and opening up free trade and movement. The UK is going to back itself into a very lonely corner. 

Never mind that Britain has a German royal family, a Norman ruling elite, a Greek patron saint, a Roman Middle-eastern religion, Indian food is its national cuisine, an Arabic-Indian numeral system, a Latin alphabet, and an identity predicated on a multi-ethnic, global-spanning empire. Fuck the bloody foreigners. 

I had a lovely moment the other day. I teach at a university, with a group of young Rwandan medical students. We were doing an introduction to critical thinking, in which - I am sorry to say - I did inflict the Rule Britania! debate on them and Piers Morgan. Thankfully, they survived. But we were having a debate about colonialism and racism, and one of our students started her point by saying:

"I've never experienced racism..."

What a lovely thing to hear. And you might think, why would she experience racism as an African woman living in Africa, but Rwanda has had its share of division in the past. So, it was just a really encouraging thing to hear this student say, and I wondered, after reading this book, how many black British students could say the same?

Anyway, I've waffled on. This was just a really good book. I would say that it should be compulsory reading in British schools, only I know there's no quicker way to put kids off reading something than to make it compulsory. Still, definitely should be on there.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

The Science of Everyday Life

  

 

This was an interesting one. Written by a guy who broke the world record for the number a steps a slinky went down, was part of the team that broke the world record for the largest boomerang return and almost got the record for the longest-surviving soap bubble.  

Have you ever wondered why ice floats and water is such a freaky liquid? Or why chilis and mustard are both hot but in different ways? Or why microwaves don't cook from the inside out?

In this fascinating scientific tour of household objects, The One Show presenter and all-round science bloke Marty Jopson has the answer to all of these and many more baffling questions about the chemistry and physics of the everyday stuff we use every day. 

I was actually very relieved that I knew some of these, such as the difference between a cake and a biscuit, why chilis burn and the latest thinking on why our fingers wrinkle in the bath. I did used to watch QI a lot.  

And, yes, I did know the cake v. biscuit argument from the great Jaffa Cake Debacle of 1991.

A Jaffa Cake is a 64mm (2.5") disk of Genoese sponge topped by a smaller disk of orange-flavoured jelly that is then slathered in dark chocolate. Taken together, you have a deliciously morish morsel of loveliness, to the point that a packet of Jaffa Cakes is a binary object, by which I mean it has only two states: unopened or empty. There have been rumours of half packets, but the evidence is debatable.

I also knew that the 'taste map' of the tongue had been debunked, though the discussion on how many flavours we can taste and also how many senses we have was seriously interesting. What constitutes a sense and how they overlap really gave pause for thought.

Also didn't know that energy-saving light bulbs contain mercury, and waiting for the gas to heat up is why they take longer to reach their full brightness, or that drinking tea helps to maintain healthy teeth because it contains fluoride, like toothpaste.

Interesting stuff, and a wide array of subjects from fridge freezers to compost heaps.

So much information that I'm not sure I've retained most of it, but certainly a few extra nuggets of knowledge.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Have a Frosty and Fabulous Yule


 

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Origins of Imigongo

I have managed to do so little writing lately. Each time I sat down to start, another assignment landed on my desk, but somehow I've managed to push the manuscript over 40k. 

I've just reached the part where my main character enters the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, on the banks of the Euphrates. Whenever I start to write about a new place, I pause to do a bit of reading. It was late last night when I kicked back with a glass of wine and set Wiki on text-to-speech. I closed my eyes whilst I listened, trying to imagine what the place must have looked like.

Partway through, it started talking about 'cone temples' and 'cone mosaics.' I had no idea what these were, so pulled up Google Image to take a look.

My jaw hit the floor.

 


Here in Rwanda, we have a traditional form of art called imigongo. It's made from cow dung, and when I overlay the pictures of imigongo with the patterns at Uruk, you'll see why I was so stunned.

 

 

The similarity is just startling.

Wiki says imigongo was traditionally used to decorate 'magical huts,' so places of healing and shamanism, perhaps. Nowadays, you see it everywhere: the national stadium, Kigali Cultural Village, hotels in town, craft markets - it's all over the place.

 

 Hotel in Rusizi

Nowadays, imigongo is almost exclusively black and white, but the article said that traditionally it was red, white and black. Here's a colour photo from Uruk.

 


 Modern Imigongo

 

One of the most popular imigongo patterns is this one, on my wall.

 


The swirly spiral is said to represent the elephant's trunk. Though, it's always strongly reminded me of the Australian Aboriginal symbol for a watering hole.

 


There's something quite intuitive about swirls and curves representing water. Though, intuition is obviously culturally subjective. However, the cone temple at Uruk, where the mosaics are, might possibly have been 'the earliest water cult in Mesopotamia.' Although, I've yet to see a picture of a swirly pattern there. They seem to have gone for straight-line geometric shapes. So, that link doesn't really mean anything. It's just me thinking out loud.

Obviously, geometric patterns are nothing unusual in cultures all over the world, from the Azteks to the Celts. The Normans also had a strong affinity with the zig-zag pattern, as you can see from this church in the English village of Quenington. 

 


Everyone was clearly into psychedelics back then.

So, yes, geometric shapes are absolutely nothing new. But the similarities between the cone temple at Uruk and imigongo just seem so intriguing, it's hard not to wonder whether there's a link.

I started to think about it hard, and I've come up with a couple of theories. Some, or all of it, might be complete codswallop, but have a read and see what you think. 

 

Migration I

The first theory was naturally migration of some sort. It's a difficult topic to discuss in Rwanda because of the history of ethnic division. Nowadays, everyone is Rwandan, but during the Genocide Against the Tutsi in 1994, there were strong divisions between Hutu and Tutsi. Many Tutsi bodies were thrown into the Nyabarongo River in the mistaken belief they would 'go back to Ethiopia.' Therefore, you don't really talk about migration because it stirs up very unpleasant memories.

Yet, the population of Africa has been surprisingly fluid in many areas as recently as 200 years ago, as I discovered when I became interested in Congolese masks. DNA and cultural studies do seem to suggest that there might have been a southerly migration of people from the Gibe region of Ethiopia. However, this happened so long ago - suggestions fall around the 15th century (over 600 years ago) - that Rwandans as a population share far more of their DNA with each other than anyone still does with Gibe. It's sort of like British people and their genetic links to central Europe and Scandinavia.  

Anyway, if, for the sake of a theory, we did accept that there might have been migration from Ethiopia, that gets us very close to Egypt. Now, there's some evidence that, before the Egyptians started building their own brand of pyramid, they tried out a few Sumerian step pyramids first. That puts the Sumerians in Africa.

The artwork could have potentially migrated up from Uruk, over the lip of the Red Sea into Egypt, then from there down through Ethiopia to Rwanda.


Map from this video on the rise of Sumer

 

The earliest ziggurats in Egypt date to around 2600 BC, so over 4,500 years ago.

It's a nice idea that art was carried by people from Sumer to central Africa, where it has remained, but it's highly unlikely. The reason I say that is that you would sort of expect to find imigongo in some of the other countries it passed through, like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan, but it doesn't seem to be there. 

There's something similar in West Africa. This is a picture of the Bwa people from Burkina Faso. 

 

The X shape is the same, but they use a lot of other patterns, such as the straight, rather than diagonal, chequered pattern, that you don't tend to see in imigongo. It's not quite such an exact match with Uruk. Though the crescent moon shape is interesting, as one of the main temples at Uruk was dedicated to Inanna/Ishtar, who is very much associated with the moon. But, then, the moon is a completely universal symbol as everyone in the world can look up at it. It's often associated with cow horns, especially on the equator, because here, the moon waxes down to up, rather than left to right. It really does look like cow horns.

 

 National Geographic


Anyway. There just doesn't seem to be a trail of that particular art going up the side of Africa in that direction.

Of course, if a route existed, art could have gone in either direction. There's no reason it couldn't have been transported using basic materials of clay and dung to Sumeria, where it was then transformed into mosaic work. It wouldn't be the first time Rwanda exported something magical. There is a regional goddess here called Nyabinghi, who sits on top of Mount Karisimbi, sipping tea from giant snail shells. She took a little trip to the Caribbean a while back and wound up in Jamaica as a central figure in Rastafari. Things work in mysterious ways.

But, still, if evidence did exist for such a migration of art, it doesn't seem to anymore.

So, I like the idea, but I doubt it's correct.

 

 Migration II

There is a more direct migration route later on between Sumer and Africa that can be traced through language. Around 2000 BC, Sumer was taken over by the Akkadians, becoming the Akkadian Empire. They spoke a Semitic language.

There was quite a bit of trade going on at the bottom of the Red Sea even before then. Between what is today Yemen and Djibouti. The Semitic language crossed over into Africa, becoming Ethiopic and part of the Ethio-Semitic language group, of which modern Amharic is one. These flowed into Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan. You can watch the expansion of languages here


That would have made the trade rout look something like this - a lot less effort.


Again, there isn't much evidence of the imigongo style in countries between Sumer and Rwanda, but it's a shorter distance, so statistically less chance it would have survived over such a long period of time. 

It's tenuous, but definitely more probable than the first migration theory.

 

German Occupation

After considering the idea that art and culture might have gone on tour, I tried to think whether there could be any other explanation for the similarity.

Unfortunately, I came up with one that was rather less attractive but also plausible.

Rwanda was colonised by Germany between 1884 until 1916, when Belgium invaded during the First World War.

The cone temple at Uruk was discovered and excavated by Germans between 1912-1913. The cone temple of the water cult was built on top of by the Sumerians, but they kept an eternal flame burning for the previous temple. Probably so as not to offend the previous gods who lived there. This eternal flame burns in a building named The Riemchen Building. 

Given Uruk's close proximity to German East Africa, the easy shipping route, and archaeologists' natural propensity to explore, it's not inconceivable that someone came from Uruk with pictures and drawings of the mosaics, and somehow that blended into existing Rwandan crafts. 

It would perhaps be the most direct way of explaining how the two places ended up with such similar patterns and colouring. 

However, there's a fairly strong counter argument to this theory...

 

Random Chance

The official story of how imigongo came into being is fairly universally agreed, though not exactly when.

Kimenyi, the King of Gisaka, had a son called Kakira. Prince Kakira lived in Kibungo Province. It is said that he was the first to mix ash and clay for colour and to paint the inside of his house with imigongo patterns.

The problem is that some sources say this happened in the 18th century and others say the 19th century. It might be a translation issue whereby 1800s got confused with 18th century (1700s), making 19th century correct. There appear to have been several King Kimenyis of Gisaka, with stories dating back to the 1500s. I'd need to find someone with far better historical knowledge to place him in history. 

Anyway, Uruk was completely abandoned by 700 AD. I'm not sure of the exact dates they excavated the cone temple, but if it was any time after 1912, it was far later than the first time Prince Kakira picked up a brush and started creating imigongo. Therefore, he couldn't have been influenced by the temple of Uruk, because it hadn't been discovered.

There is the very real possibility that both Sumer and Rwanda spontaneously developed the same style of art, using the same patterns and colour system, several thousand years and several thousand miles apart. After all, many things have been discovered by more than one person independently, including the Big Bang theory, the MΓΆbius strip, and the telephone, which was discovered independently by both Elisha Gray and Alexander Bell, who filed patents on the exact same day.


So, those seem the most likely options. What do you think?

It would be interesting to know if the same patterns and colour schemes do exist in other parts of the world. 

[February 2021 - UPDATE: migration theory revised based on new information.]

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Nutcracker Pictures

 

Some very cool pictures in The Guardian of the Royal Ballet's performance of Peter Wright’s Christmas Nutcracker production. That's my cousin, Billy, on the left. Also a picture of him in full costume at the bottom of the set. It's playing at the Royal Opera House from 11 December until 3 January. Tickets here.

 


 

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Musical Interlude: Lindsey Stirling

 

I'm currently a little bit obsessed with Lindsey Stirling. Check out her Greatest Showman, Mr Grinch, Master of Tides, Elements and Shadows performances. I can't help thinking a collaboration with Sam Lee might be entertaining.

Friday, 11 December 2020

Don't Make a Sound

 

Picked this up in a sale because I liked the cover and the blurb:

You can't choose your family. Or can you?

Meet the Bensons. A pleasant enough couple. They keep themselves to themselves. They wash their car, mow their lawn and pass the time of day with their neighbours. And they have a beautiful little girl called Daisy.

There's just one problem. Daisy doesn't belong to the Bensons. They stole her. And now they've decided that Daisy needs a little brother or sister.

DS Nathan Cody is about to face his darkest and most terrifying case yet.... 

Oh yes, that's the way to do it!

Such a good story. 

As with my previous few reads, not the first in its series, but, unlike the others, the back references to psychotic clowns, amputated body parts and previous love interests did make me want to go and read more.

It had me glued from the start and I think I finished it up in a two-hour sitting. 

They say the first child is the most difficult. You have no prior experience or knowledge. You have to learn as you go along. Of course, they're talking about natural childbirth. But the same applies here, doesn't it? In fact, it's worse. There were no books or experts he and Harriet could consult before doing things their way. They could hardly go to a counsellor and say, 'We're thinking of having a child, only it's someone else's child, and they won't be very keen on the idea. What do you recommend?'

I think, as just about every other review says of it, the plot twist at the end completely floors you. It's brilliant. There's a little hint of it towards the end, but you're so focused on the abductors that you don't stop to think that thought through.

I picked it up on audiobook and was rather surprised to realise the narrator was  Johnathan Keeble. I last sat with him through the entire History of Western Philosophy. This couldn't have been more different, but his delivery was flawless. He's definitely up there as one of my favourite audiobook artists.

I know that I enjoyed it because, if I really get swept up in something, it tends to continue to influence me for a little while after. I've been walking round the house talking to myself in a broad Scouse accent for the past couple of days. It's getting a little disturbing.

Send in the clowns...

Thursday, 10 December 2020

The Witches' Tree

 

Picked this up because I loved the cover and it's set in the Cotswolds, which is an area of Britain I know well:

Cotswolds inhabitants are used to inclement weather, but the night sky is especially foggy as Rory and Molly Devere, the new vicar and his wife, drive slowly home from a dinner party in their village of Sumpton Harcourt. They strain to see the road ahead―and then suddenly brake, screeching to a halt. Right in front of them, aglow in the headlights, a body hangs from a gnarled tree at the edge of town. Margaret Darby, an elderly spinster, has been murdered―and the villagers are bewildered as to who would commit such a crime.

Agatha Raisin rises to the occasion (a little glad for the excitement, to tell the truth, after a long run of lost cats and divorces on the books). But Sumpton Harcourt is a small and private village, she finds―a place that poses more questions than answers. And when two more murders follow the first, Agatha begins to fear for her reputation―and even her life. That the village has its own coven of witches certainly doesn't make her feel any better...

This one really confused me. Once again, I've dived into the middle of a series (book 28 of 31) without having read the previous, so some confusion is bound to exist. Though, whereas I was expecting a solid murder mystery novel, about ninety per cent of the book was solely concerned with whether or not the main character, Agatha Raisin, was going to get laid or not.

There was a brief paragraph or two at the beginning where a couple of people got hanged, then one partway through where somebody drowned, a couple of lines about a rape - and the rest was exceedingly softcore romance.

I think the bit that maybe confused me the most was where two female characters were knocked out with a date rape drug and woke up naked and tied to a tree. The absolute highest concern either of them had was whether or not pictures of them naked would appear in the paper. Which, unbelievably, they did.

I get it. It's very much written in a similar style to A House of Ghosts, in that it highly stylises upper-middle class England. A section of society that is more likely to say 'Oh dear, that is a shame,' when somebody gets stabbed to death in front of them than to scream.

As I mentioned in my House of Ghosts review, the problem you face is that characters then become walking balls of received pronunciation without much that the reader can relate to. I also come from a small village, and I know people like that do exist, but that doesn't in itself make them interesting people. If all they are is a caricature of well-spoken Britishness, that doesn't really take you very far.

Mind you, by book 28 of 31, M. C. Beaton might just have given up trying.



I sort of imagined the tree to look a bit like the Clachan Oak in Scotland, which they used to tie scolds to whilst their husbands drank in the pub opposite. Some better pictures on Google

 


 

It looks suitably menacing. Though, there is a particular type of menace that goes along with quaint English villages, as anyone who ever played Personal Nightmare will know. They're invariably possessed by the devil, run by witches and kept in line by priests who can rotate their heads 360 degrees. It's a thing, and a very real threat to tourism. I just wish there'd been a bit more about that in the book rather than how dreadfully hard it is for a fifty-year-old detective to keep her false eyelashes glued on.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Animated Book Covers

Oh dear, I've been let loose on Motionleap (Pixaloop) and it's quite good fun. I've used it to animate some of my book covers. 

 

 





Sunday, 6 December 2020

The Rose Garden

 

Okay, I realise the last excerpt was a little bit murdery. I would like to prove to people that this is not my only writing style. My default, yes, but not my only one. 

Most of the book is not that. 

The MS has flown past 30k now, so here's a chapter introducing Baby Sargon. He's like Baby Yoda, but with a slightly healthier complexion and smaller ears.

I made the mistake of titling this chapter The Rose Garden, and now I can't get Lynn Anderson out of my head.

It's an issue.

Anyway, as ever with a work in progress, this is rough as a pair of Dura-Gold pants.

 


 

The Rose Garden

 

Akki reclined on a leather cushion beneath a wide-branched hawthorn. Its delicate white petals peppered the ground, lending a sweet fragrance to the afternoon. Little Apsu stood a few feet away, unsteady on his young legs. He was peering into the pail of freshly drawn water that Akki had lifted from the well. After laughing at his own reflection, he dipped his tiny bucket into the pail and tottered off amidst the flowerbeds to water the weeds. He spilt more of the water down his tunic than he did over the plants, but the look of joy on his face prevented Akki from interfering.

It had been five years since he had found the boy sealed inside the casket, caked in his own waste. The next morning, a girl had returned the child to him when he woke, along with three skins of fresh mare’s milk for the journey home. Zilittu had disappeared with the morning mist and he could not find her to thank her.

Leaving Sepu to begin preparations for the work, he strapped the child to his chest and rode gently for home. Each time the child became restless, he stopped to feed it or to hold it beneath each armpit so that it could sprinkle the earth. As the high city walls of Kish came into view, the child began to wriggle and kick beneath Akki’s shawl. His tiny face wrinkled up and he thought the boy might scream, but he settled again as they passed below the tall gateway.

“Welcome back,” one of the guards greeted him. “Was your trip productive?”

“Very,” Akki replied, touching his hand to his nose in greeting. He felt bad that he had not stopped to speak with the guard, who was a distant cousin of his wife’s, but the child needed a quiet place to rest, and so did he.

He took the back streets, circumventing Temple Square with its market, and turned onto a quiet track that wound between the date groves. Most of the trees had been harvested and he loosened the reigns, allowing his horse to munch at the forgotten fruit which had escaped the women’s baskets.

It was cool beneath the trees and Akki was pleased to see that the boy had fallen back to sleep. The road they were on led to a fine summer palace that belonged to Puzur-Suen, the King of Kish, but they turned off some way before that. His own modest estate lay on the edge of the king’s grounds. He had dug many of the irrigation ditches for the palace himself, and the plentiful supply of water allowed Akki to grow beautiful gardens. His wife, Kasiru, had a fondness for roses, so he had devoted an entire garden to them. In the evenings, they would sit in that garden, sipping sweet wine and breathing in the heady scent of the buds. Sometimes they spent the entire night there, making love until the horizon turned as pink as petals.

They had not yet been married a year when he returned from the village with the boy. Kasiru ran out to greet him as he dismounted from his horse, but stopped when she saw what he carried. The child did not wake as she came forward to study him. Nor did he wake as she lifted her questioning eyes to Akki.

“What is this you bring me?” she asked.

“It is a long story,” he replied, stroking her soft cheek. “I am weary from the road. May I wash and explain once the wine is poured?”

She nodded, though her frown followed him into the house.

Five years, he repeated to himself. Five years that had flown by like swallows. In less than a year, their own son, Luadu, would be strong enough to join his brother at the well, helping to water the parched earth and make the flowers bloom.

It had been Kasiru’s idea to name the boy Apsu, after the deep-running water that had birthed him into their care. Akki had wanted to name him something more military, to reflect his warrior spirit, having fought so hard for life, but his wife felt his choices inappropriate for an infant. Watching him now, dipping his bucket with a look of giddy pleasure, he had to agree.

That first day, he had been so afraid when he sat down to tell the story of how he found the boy. In his heart, Akki had already claimed him for his own. A gift from the river goddess. Yet, it was too much to ask Kasiru to feel the same. She had not yet fallen pregnant with their first child, how could he ask her to raise a stranger’s? He had thought on this on the long ride back to Kish, and had formulated a plan. They would ask their neighbour Huziru to raise the boy. All of her children were grown now and her husband in the ground. They would pay her to feed him and clothe him, and later for tutors to provide him an education.

Akki opened his mouth to suggest all of this, when the child woke and began to cry. Immediately, Kasiru rose to her feet and went into the house to fetch him. She returned carrying one of the skins the old woman had given Akki, and sat beside him, cross-legged, whilst the infant suckled from the leather teat.

“He will need a name,” she said. “And tomorrow we will have to send for a wetnurse, a crib and fresh swaddling.”

“Are you saying he may live with us?”

“Well, where else would he live?” she replied, with the same wifely authority her mother had taught her. “He can hardly provide for himself. And look at those sweet little lips. Who will kiss him and hold him if we do not? Who will sing him to sleep and warm milk for the morning?”

Akki had loved his wife then more than he ever thought possible. Under her watchful eye, the child had grown strong and gentle. He had refused every wetnurse they sent for, only accepting the milk of a mare. Kasiru worried when she fell pregnant that the boy might resent a rival for her attention, but from the moment he saw Luadu, he loved him. Apsu was constantly bringing back gifts from the garden: snail shells and cherries, feathers, fat catterpillars, and the elegant laticework of decomposing leaves.

Kasiru accepted each with a smile, often with Luadu asleep at her breast, and vowed to save them for when he woke. Satisfied, Apsu would climb into his little alcove and fall to dreaming with his thumb in his mouth. When Akki came back from inspecting the city waterways, he would carefully collect the bowl of offerings and place them for a moment in front of the shrine of Khepat before depositing them behind a fragrant cedar bush.

Kasiru lived in fear that their son would ask what they had done with his gifts, complicit in her husband’s nightly crime, but by the time Apsu woke in the morning he had already forgotten they ever existed. Akki made it their first ritual of the day to light the lamps on Khepat’s shrine. The simple act of scraping butter into clay lamps, rolling wool for the wicks, and watching the flame melt its solid mass to a puddle of gold, enchanted his son. They filled the censer with cedar sap and hung it above the flame, then filled the water bowl and placed fresh fruit on the tray.  

Every house in Kish had a shrine to Khepat. She had been the mother of the present King of Kish, known as Queen Kubaba when she lived. Puzur-Suen had loved his mother dearly, and the entire nation fell to mourning when she passed, for she had liberated Sumer from the Mariotes. The Mari Kings held rule over the Sumerians for generations, until Kish rose up against their leader, Sharrumiter. Now, it was they who played slave and the Sumerians who stood proud upon their native land.

Queen Kubaba of Kish had been a humble alewife when the war began. She had served beer to the occupying Mariotes with the same hand she served her own people. Some say she suffered brutally beneath their rule, locked in a basement and ravaged when the wine went to their heads, others say she lost three sons to the resistance and broke like a pot from grief. The truth of the tales none will ever know, for who dare ask a queen to explain anything of herself?

What is known, is that she took up arms against the Mariotes in that final battle. She rode with the fury of Nergal in her heart. Her battle cry drew men like a storm summons waves. They fought for a day and a night, and when dawn broke, her enemies lay as corpses at her feet. All who remained standing bent the knee and bowed their heads, not a voice spoke out against her.

She reigned peacefully over the newly liberated Sumerian people for many lifetimes. She bore a harvest of healthy sons, yet never took a husband. Her favoured son, Puzur-Suen, became king on her passing but refused to administer his duties for he said his heart was breaking. He spent every day at the temple. He paid half the city to kneel and say prayers, every hour of every day, in her honour.

Eventually, the High Priestess of Zababa came to him and offered the sleep of the poppy. He was so exhausted that he slept there in the temple for three days. When he awoke, he spoke of having seen his mother in a dream. She had appeared to him, shining like the heart of the sun, smiling beatifically and stroking his cheek. He said her touch brought peace to his heart and that all about the dry desert of Sumer bloomed flowers, ripe fruit and butterflies.

“Your mother has been deified,” the priestess told him.

“You mean she is not trapped in the darkness of Kur?”

“That is right. She has been plucked from the underworld and lives in bliss amongst the gods. They have done this for her because she saved their people from Mari tyrants and restored the gods to their rightful thrones.”

This answer satisfied Puzur-Suen. The priestess told him his mother’s name should now be Khepat, goddess of the sun and mother of all living beings. And so, each house was ordered to erect a shrine in the east and to worship the rising of the sun with golden ghee and ripe fruit. This would ensure his mother’s strength and her benefaction of the city of Kish.

This done, Puzur-Suen set about his business as ruler.

Beside the well, Apsu had dropped his bucket and was now smashing his palms against the surface of the pail. Fat droplets of water hit the dirt and quickly began to fade in the heat.

“Apsu, it is almost time to eat,” Akki said, rising from his cushion.

“No, play!” Apsu replied.

“Come now, your mother is waiting.”

“No!” the child said again, with the granite tone of determination.

“Very well, have it your own way, but you will go hungry.”

Apsu ignored his father entirely and set about scooping water in his hands and trying to carry it to his bucket, but he was not yet coordinated and most of it trickled between his fingers. Akki considered this for a moment, and then walked away, smiling. The boy had absorbed stubbornness rather than strength from a diet of mare’s milk, and he knew that they were too soft on him. He did not respond to threats, because he and his wife never carried them out. Of course there would be a plate of food waiting for him when he was ready to come inside.

He removed his sandals at the entrance, and lifted his skirt over the step, allowing the heavily embroidered hem to fall back to his ankles. As a family, they were wealthy, yet they chose to live modestly. Akki had been his father’s only surviving son, eight others having died in childhood and one, his brother Mitu, having drowned in a dredging accident two moons before he was due to marry. As such, Akki had inherited his family’s possessions and his father’s not-insubstantial savings. His own wife came from a family of Assyrian wool merchants. Although he had paid a substantial bride price to her father, she had brought with her the deeds to a large swathe of pastoral land on the outskirts of Kish. They hired her brothers to continue the family tradition of raising sheep. The textile industry was lucrative if you knew what you were doing, and they did, so Akki and his family were always well dressed and well fed.

After his father’s death, he had found suitable husbands for his sisters. His mother had gone to live with her eldest daughter, and Akki and his wife had relocated from the bustling town house of his youth to the tranquil pastures of the city outskirts. Their land was still within the protected boundaries of the city, but it was far enough from the market and the temple that they could sleep soundly. The house had once belonged to a servant of the adjoining palace and was modest for the current age. There was a small inner courtyard quartered by flower beds with a fountain in the centre. Kasiru had grown jasmine up the inner walls and the scent soothed them to sleep at night.

Smooth, whitewashed walls surrounded the courtyard. Behind him was a tall archway studded with carnelian and jasper. Three smaller openings led off in each direction to other parts of the house: the kitchen, the bath house and their private quarters. The kitchen had an upper floor where the cook slept, surrounded by supplies, and their private quarters also had an upper level where they slept, with a balcony looking out across the rose garden. There was a separate building for the servants, at a respectable distance from the main house.

Akki turned right into their private quarters and found his wife already on the floor, their evening meal spread before her. Their son, Luadu, had maize porridge glued to his fist and was about to wipe it on his mother’s dress, so Akki raced forward to stop him. Their infant daughter, Susanu, was asleep in her cot, already full on her mother’s milk.

“Should I call for more bread?” he asked.

“No, I think we have everything here. Where is Apsu?”

“I could not tear him away from his games. He will come in when he grows hungry.”

Kasiru nodded and passed a cushion to her husband. He seated himself opposite her and reached forward to dip his fingers in rosewater before plunging one hand into the mound of rice and goatmeat that sat between them. Kasiru opened a pot of thick cream, coating a leaf of flatbread with it before delicately rolling up a piece of meat and chewing.

They washed it down with fermented wheat juice and chewed dried apricots in honey after the savoury food was finished. They spoke about a deal her father was making to purchase more land for his flock, and about Akki’s latest expedition to the countryside to see how Sepu was progressing with an irrigation project. The sun slowly crept down between the date palms and one of the servants entered to light the oil lamps. It was only then that Kasiru sat up with worry in her eyes.

“My darling, where is Apsu? He still has not come in to eat. Please go and fetch him.”

“Of course.”

Akki rose to his feet and went in search of his sandals. Apsu was such an independent child. He wandered as he pleased throughout the day, getting in the way of the gardeners and stalking cats through the undergrowth. He knew every inch of the estate and regularly stayed out playing until dusk, when his stomach called him home.

Akki became less certain when he reached the well and found his son’s little bucket beside the empty pail. Glancing around, he held his fingers to his lips and made the kissing call of the rock partridge, which was their secret signal. He waited and then made it again. When there was still no reply, he cupped his hands and called Apsu’s name.

He set off through the roses and over the wooden bridge into the poppy garden.

“Apsu?” he called, over and over.

As he walked beneath an archway of vines into the vineyard, he caught sight of Haddis, the head gardener.

“Are you all right, master?” he asked, seeing the worried look on Akki’s face.

“Have you seen Apsu anywhere? He has not come home for supper.”

“No, I’ve not seen the little mite all day. Let me help you look.”

The two of them set off in different directions, both calling out to the boy. The last of the light was fading and the stars looked down with scorn. The boy had stayed out late before, but he always came when he was called. Akki’s heart thumped heavy in his chest as his eyes searched the undergrowth.

At that moment, he pushed through a tall frond and came upon a sight that made him stop. There, in the little grove before him, sat a young girl, no more than seven years old, dressed in a simple white tunic and sandals. She was twisting a blade of grass between her fingers.

Beside her sat Apsu, staring up with a wide-eyed look of wonder. Akki drew back to observe, a flush of relief coursing through him. The boy was alive, nothing bad had happened. But who was this strange girl who sat telling stories beneath the crescent moon? He knew all the families in these parts, but he did not recognise her.

She was telling him the story of Inanna and Dumuzid. The goddess Inanna, granddaughter of the Sky and daughter of the Moon, was promised to Enkimdu, the Great Farmer, who made the lands fertile and filled the bellies of his people. He sowed seeds, ripened crops and ensured the harvest. Under his protection, Inanna would want for nothing. He was plump, with strong arms and a thick beard, dressed in the finest fabrics. All the gods were looking forward to the wedding feast, for it would be the most bountiful ever attended.

Yet, one day, as Inanna was inspecting Enkimdu’s lands, she came across Dumuzid, the Shepherd. He was slim and tall, dressed in a simple woollen kilt. His hair was cut short and his face clean-shaven so that he looked more like a boy than a man. Yet, when he turned, as though sensing her presence, his eyes held the world within them. Inanna was lost for words and retreated to the safety of her betrothed’s fine palace. For Inanna was the Queen of Heaven and was never lost for words. She wielded lightning and made the earth tremble. She commanded the hearts of men. Nothing made her blush.

Each evening, she would wander down the valley looking for Dumuzid, but she did not find him. One evening, not long before the wedding, she turned to find him following her. The light of the moon haloed his head, washing away the shadows from his smooth skin. He held his shepherd’s rod in one hand and held out the other to her. Instead of taking it, she drew back, turning her face from the light.

“Beautiful Lady Inanna, is it not I you have been searching for these past nights? Well, here I stand before you. Take my hand.”

“Don’t be foolish,” she snapped. “Why would I be looking for you? You’re nothing but a shepherd, and I am to marry a fine lord.”

“Oh, is that so?” Dumuzi asked, running his tongue behind his bottom lip. “If that be true, I wonder why you come walking out here, alone, at night?”

“It is warm in the house and I wish to feel the cool night air on my skin.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes, indeed. I do not like the way you look at me, common sheepherder. You stink of mud and dung. Get out of my sight, before I tell my husband of your impertinence!”

“And what would your husband do?” Dumuzi asked, taking a step towards her.

“Why, he will withhold his bread, so you starve. He will withhold his beer, so you become sober. He will withhold his flax, so you have nothing to wear and go naked about the fields–”

“I wear wool,” he pointed out. “Though I would be happy to remove it if that is what you prefer?”

She glared at him. “I’m warning you, Enkimdu would not find that funny and neither do I.”

“Oh, Inanna. Why do you speak of the farmer? Why do you speak about him? If he gives you black flour, I’ll give you black wool. If he gives you white flour, I’ll give you white wool. If he gives you beer, I’ll give you sweet milk to drink. In place of his bread, I offer you honey cheese. How could he starve me? It is I who will offer him my leftover cream, my leftover milk. I ask again, why do you speak of the farmer? What does he have more than I do?”

“Shepherd,” she spat. “Do you know who my mother is? If it weren’t for her favour, your sheep would have nothing to eat. If it weren’t for my grandmother, they’d have nothing to drink and you’d be driven to the steppes in search of water. If my father, the Great Moon God, did not shine above, you would have no roof beneath which to shelter, and don’t even get me started on my brother Utu, who blazes brightly all the year long...”

Dumuzi held up his hand to hush her. “Inanna, do not start a quarrel,” he said, softly. “My father, Enki, is just as wise and strong as your father, Nanna. My mother, Sirtur, is as beautiful and knowing as your mother, Ningal. My sister, Geshtinanna, is just as radiant and hardworking as your brother, Utu. Oh, great Queen of the Palace, let us talk it over.”

And so it was that Inanna shed her superiority as she shed her robes, and fell in love with a simple shepherd.

The little girl lent forward and placed a kiss on Apsu’s forehead.

Akki chose this moment to reveal himself. He stepped out from behind the frond and spoke softly. “Do not be alarmed. I am here searching for my son. Apsu, it’s time to come home, the stars are out.”

The girl stood up but did not look frightened. Apsu had placed his little hand in hers and was looking at his father with some reluctance.

“You are his father?” she asked, doubtfully.

“Yes. And who are you? I thought I knew all the children hereabouts.”

“I live just over there,” she said, pointing absently over her shoulder into the undergrowth. “I must be getting back now. My mother will wonder where I am.”

She let go of Apsu’s hand and hurried off before Akki could call to her. The look of abandonment on his son’s face was almost comical, it was as though his favourite toy had been taken away.

“Come on, little warrior,” he said, hoisting him onto his shoulder. “It is well past suppertime and you should be sleeping.”

As he turned for home, his son twisted to look back over his shoulder to the place where the girl had disappeared. He swore he heard him whisper the word, ‘Inanna.’