Howsham Mill in the summer

You can’t tell it by looking at these pictures, but the day we decided to revisit last October’s walk along the River Derwent, it topped thirty degrees.

The woods, though, remained pleasantly cool. There were even tangy wild redcurrants.

The field at the top was full of beans. More than can be said for me by the time we got there! The borders have been left for meadow flowers.

Further on, wheat harvest was in full swing.

The manor overlooks more fields of wheat.

I don’t recall wheat being a thing in Yorkshire when I first learned about it – you associated it with East Anglia. It only takes very little change in climate though – less than half a degree – to shift things miles further north. Half a degree in half a century.

Howsham Mill’s Archimedean Screw water turbine is still working well. You can hear it as a soft, slow, ‘thud, thud’ from across the river.

On the way back to the Priory, another weir awaits. We speculated about whether you could kayak down it.

Back at the Priory, people were enjoying a swim. We dipped our feet in to cool off.

Walk to Work

The River Path and the walk into town are a regular part of my life. It’s 2 miles – forty minutes – to walk into town. You’re supposed to be able to cycle this path too, but I’ve found that’s no faster and you lose the right to daydream. So walking it is.

The path by the Allotments – today with a very-lost London Black Cab.

Rain has fallen on blackberry flowers.

Plants grow in our Flood Prevention walls…

Flowerbed next to the Blue Bridge, looked after by Friends of New Walk. The little mechanical bridge features in ‘The Price of Time’ and ‘The Evening Lands’.

Nature fighting back.

An illuminated ginnel.

A stall in the Market selling – I kid you not – Viking drinking horns.

And finally The Portal – LGBT Speculative Fiction bookshop (Every town should have one!)

Morning Glory

Summer warms the soil all around. All hope, all work, now coalesces to a single point: the meristem. Nourishment passes along thick, pale rhyzomes sleeping in the earth – stores that could stay fresh through forty winters. Everything is ready for the push.

The pressure at the tip can rearrange earth, heave aside metal; fracture stone. Behind, construction work begins in earnest: the first tiny purple leaves unfold, stiffen, then green, and turn like hearts to catch the light. The race is on – on and up, twining against the course of the sun.

Stems elongate and curl, but never stiffen: why trouble with the costly complexities of Lignin when someone else nearby has done it for you? A bine twists around – embraces – loves a dupe.

A bine strangles the strong and overruns the weak – outgrows the sluggish and robs them of their light. Below the surface, unseen roots push into rivals, dissolving their matrix, stealing their supplies. Flesh, bone and metal may tear at the periphery but a bine will endure. There is no death. There is only growth – each day; each year.

There is no other way.

(Inspired by my constant struggle against bindweed on the allotment, and will likely feature in the next novel.)

There was no Spring

On 31 May the weather changed from single figures (9 degC – that’s below 50
in old money) to something like the height of summer (mid-20s, also known as
mid-70s). Also, the rain – practically a constant throughout May, stopped,
without a by-your-leave.

The allotment, as a result, went completely berserk.

The Globe Artichokes (pale green frondy foliage in the centre of the picture) generally come up in November, sit-out the winter in a sort of low-profile state and then carry on growing from about April. This year they sat tight till 31 May.
The chard (foreground) had looked to all intents and purposes dead until about the same date. Now we can’t eat it fast enough.

Broad beans have burst into bloom (that’s enough B’s) overnight. Again, I
thought the rain would beat them down into a mush before they had a chance to
grow.

Note the bindweed making an appearance in the lower left: we have to start
digging that up as soon as it shows – sadly I don’t think we’ll ever be able to
get rid of the matrix of white tubular roots that undergird our plot – we just
have to plant things that can outgrow it!

Rhubarb is artistically translucent in the sunshine.

One thing that did manage to flourish in the rain was our little apple tree (‘Sunset’) – here it is from a couple of weeks ago.

The currants must have flowered, too, at some point – but perhaps just for
the one sunny day of last month, and I blinked an missed it. At any rate, the
bees seem to have done their stuff.

Talking of bees, ‘No-Mow May’ has finally become a thing, and people are
beginning to leave roadside verges and other such places alone, so mid-spring
flowers can bloom and bees don’t have to suffer a ‘hungry gap’ between the
early bulbs and the summer flowers.

Book Review: ‘Murder in Keswick – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ by William Todd

Murder in Keswick: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery by William Todd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Arriving in Keswick for a well-earned rest from sleuthing in the grimy metropolis, Holmes and Watson find the town abuzz with rumours surrounding the murder of a local landlord – much to Watson’s consternation and Holmes’ quiet delight.

The puzzles come thick and fast: Why that particularly effortful means of murder? What about the well-worn left sleeve? And how could such a fate befall a fellow who seemed not to have an enemy in the world?

The characters and prose – with the possible exception of Watson’s too-fulsome admiration of Holmes’ deductive abilities – are true to the original ‘Adventures’, and the landscape and interiors realistically and sympathetically portrayed. Some reviewers have mentioned Americanisms creeping in but a quick bolt down an etymology rabbit-hole reveals it’s perfectly possible that ‘server’ (in a restaurant) and even the dreadful ‘gotten’ were indeed used as words by real people in the nineteenth century when our two languages were less diverged.

The plot and clues of this short novel are well put together such that I, at least, kicked myself (metaphorically!) when ‘all was revealed’ at the end in the classic style.

A touching author’s note completes the read: the author is American, and thanks the people of the online community who have helped him achieve such a true-to-life portrait of the Lake District (disclaimer: I admit I take the place for granted a bit too much – my parents live there!)

The final mystery is – how did this particular book come to be where I found it – namely, abandoned wedged in some railings in York? Somebody either missed a trick or decided to pass-on a good read!




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Book Review: ‘Roadside Attractions’ by Eric Lahti

Roadside Attractions by Eric Lahti

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The story opens with what, under normal circumstances, would be a tragic death – but the victim’s attitude is refreshingly different. Having spent her brief adult life in the margins of Hollywood – as repeated victim of typical Hollywood men, and being driven to drugs as a consequence – she finds in death the blessed release of no longer having to deal with the burdensome liability of a tangible female body.

The cynicism is darkly hilarious. But the characters are still (nearly) all ones you would root for. Even when you find out, at the mid-point, what the most enigmatic one has in mind, you still feel a brief temptation to take their side after all the torment they’ve been put through…

The backdrop, as the two unlikely main protagonists first ply their trade chasing troublesome ghosts from people’s houses and then become drawn ever deeper into an all-encompassing supernatural conflict between evil and, er, even more evil, is reminiscent of ‘American Gods’. But with the difference that here we have realistic (even though mainly supernatural) relatable characters, each with something to fight for, in a well-woven plot. I mean, these characters are so true-to-life that you even catch one of the women grumbling about the inadequate size of jeans pockets.

If you like an all-American road trip with a difference, including atmospheric landscape, crackling magic, and some long-drawn-out and marvellously gruesome fight scenes (immortal characters can sustain so many more injuries than the rest of us) then this is the read for you.



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North York Moors, Saxon church, and sundial

“I want to drag you all out for a walk.”

Nobody reacted.

“There’s a Sundial.”

It also has to be said that the temperature had finally reached the upper realms of single figures, and the weeks-long gruesome wind had died down; so off we all went.

The Moors are heather and peat, and sparsely inhabited. At night, they offer some of England’s darkest skies.

The milestone here was put up in 2000. We sat for a bit of a rest and noticed the lamb near the sheep on the left there wasn’t moving – the sheep kept returning to it hoping for better luck each time. Eventually the lamb got up on shaky legs and started to feed. Life isn’t always easy.

This hole i’th wall was Lastingham’s village well.

Lastingham village.

The land for Lastingham Church was originally consacrated by St Cedd, who also took part in the Synod of Whitby (which, among other things, set out how the date for Easter is calculated.)

Cedd died of the Plague in 664. Of a party of monks who travelled all the way from Essex to mourn him, all bar one met the same fate. What with that and the Saxon crypt, the church is kind-of Metal…

The village, under the moors. Ever noticed how it’s the most recently-built houses in Northern villages that have the best views? The older ones nestle to keep out of the wind – and their inhabitants would probably have had enough of the Great Outdoors by the time the working day comes to an end!

Vintage postbox (Note ‘V : R’ embossed at the top!)

We now come to one of the flatter parts of Yorkshire…

…which led us, finally, to Kirkdale, and the 11th century sundial whose inscription mentions not only Edward (‘the Confessor’) but also Tostig, at that time Earl of Northumbria. Tostig’s later support of Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge contributed to King Harold’s defeat at Hastings in the same year.

In the wake of that battle, and wanting to stamp out any possibility of Northern rebellion, William I sent mercenaries north. They exterminated three quarters of the population here.

Like I said – dark skies.

Book Review: ‘The Martian Diaries Volume 1 – The day of the Martians’ by H.E. Wilburson

The Day of the Martians by H.E. Wilburson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘The Martian Diaries’ books draw upon the rich seam of Victorian science fiction tradition to address the question: After the ending of the original ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells (and I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, for those of you who’ve not yet read it), what happened next?

‘The Martian Diaries Volume 1 – The Day of the Martians’ opens with a new Martian invasion looming, with the invaders now wise to the cause of their setback twenty or so (earth) years previously.

The author’s introduction to the novella explains the sparseness of scenes is deliberate: the work is also available as an audiobook, and as such is geared for audio rendition, with the words accompanied with sound effects and music to immerse the reader in the setting, and lend atmosphere.

However the prose, written In journal form by the main character, to me lacks neither, freeing the reader to be swept along in the action. There is no need to know what the interiors look like – with the exception of an abandoned tea-room, and pair of blue curtains.

The battle scenes are vivid, the reminiscences poignant and the reflections of H.G. Wells’ work – such as the calm felt when hearing a passing train – bring a wry smile. There is, in short, atmosphere a-plenty.

The style is authentic to the year – 1913 – with that slightly stuffy but nevertheless descriptive wording of the turn of last century. The characters are true to the originals, with one gratifying bit of character growth: Laura, the journalist’s wife, is something of what today would be called an environmentalist, and one of her scientific insights as a result is crucial to the plot. The allusions, with the invasion imminent, to the war that we but not the characters here know would break out the following year, bring a heightened sense of ominousness for the reader.

We even have a nod to H.G. Wells’ philosophy. Leaving aside the outcome of the battle, the reader is asked to wonder, regarding the nature of the weapon used on the Martian invaders: can you trust humans with a thing of such power?



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Book Review: ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ by Atul Gawande

The Checklist Manifesto How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


What if you heard, one day, of a simple and straightforward ‘secret’ that could halve your chances of complications after surgery, dramatically improve air travel safety even if disaster struck, and after all that make sure your order in a swanky restaurant was brought faultlessly to your table?

You’d want to be in on it, wouldn’t you?

Until, perhaps, you found out the nature of this ‘secret’.

It is no more nor less than a straightforward checklist: a written-down list of essential steps in any process – steps which may, in the heat of emergency or the lethargy of long hours, otherwise be inadvertently skipped.

Simple, right?

Er – no. Things can go horribly wrong – and in this case they did!

Who begins the process of reeling-off the items to be checked? How, if they’re not the Boss, do they command the attention of everybody present? And what effect does all this have upon the said Boss’s authority? The checklist in the workplace, we discover, has a social element as well as the obvious physical one.

In his quest for the perfect, universal checklist for surgical operations, Gawande and his team from the World Health Organisation draw from the expertise of everyone from nurses in rural Tanzanian hospitals struggling with unreliable supplies of the very basics, to Chesley Sullenberger.

But doesn’t the sheer simplicity and mundanity – banality even – of a checklist reduce every job to a mechanical routine? And make of every working person, no matter how knowledgeable or prestigious, a mindless drone? This was the wall Atul Gawande and his researchers came up against, when putting their findings to surgeons and doctors all over the world. How they overcame this, and achieved the results they did, is the best and most fascinating part of the tale.

The Checklist Manifesto is, above all, a story of human progress. It is sympathetically and enthusiastically told – parts of it read like a novel of suspense, complete with exotic locations and personality clashes. Though written ten years ago now, it has something to say to all of us.

Put it on your checklist of ‘things to read’!




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Book Review: ‘Another Now’ by Yanis Varoufakis

Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present by Yanis Varoufakis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 2025 idealistic tech whizz-kid Costa, in the course of developing the ultimate Virtual Reality machine, stumbles upon a portal into an alternative present-day in which the financial crash of 2008 gave rise, not to the enrichment of the banking sector as it did in our timeline, but to its total demise and the transformation of the world economy into something approaching a dynamic but egalitarian utopia.

Land and utilities are collectivised, companies are assessed (and annually vetted on pain of dissolution) for their contribution to the public good, and everyone receives a savings pot at birth and a basic income throughout life.

Delighted at his find, but terrified that his VR creation may fall into commercial hands and be used to render everyone an impoverished addict (instead of the noble purpose for which he intends it), Costa invites two trusted friends, former financier Eva and Anarchist firebrand Iris, to share in what he has found.

In scenes reminiscent of Dialogues from Plato, the three friends correspond with their counterparts in the ‘Other Now’ through the data-limited portal. Their questions on how the other economy is run, together with how it came about, are answered with a realistic sequence of events depicting its foundations and early days, and a full explanation of all its workings. The history struck a chord because the same mechanism has come into play just recently – a year after this book was written!

The ‘Other Now’ is a fully-fleshed-out, detailed scenario written by a professional: Yanis Varoufakis is a Professor of Economics and was the Syriza government’s Minister of Finance in Greece in 2015.

It’s worth noting that the book’s jacket identifies it as ‘Economics’ – not ‘Science Fiction’.

The reading is heavy going at times if you’re not an Economics or Politics enthusiast. It’s also difficult to be able to tell – again if you’re not well-up on economic or political history – whether events could unfold like this in real life without either being overpowered by our present Establishment, or else veering off in some other path. But as an economics not-quite-ignoramus, and someone who has taken a small but active part in politics, I can at least say that it is self-consistent, and not beyond the bounds of the possible.

At this point the reader may pause and think, well that’s that then – here’s our (Plato-style) Ideal economy in which everybody gets to realise something of their true selves without the threat of immiseration with which we, in ‘Our Now’, constantly have to deal.

But there’s a flaw, spotted by Iris. Perhaps some of society’s problems are insoluble – at least by Economics alone…

I loved this book. I love the way it draws upon everything from Greek philosophy and myth (disclaimer: no prior knowledge of these is assumed – everything is beautifully explained) through present-day political economy to my own Alma Mater the University of Sussex – and literally in the years that I was there!

I particularly love the twist in the closing chapters. I kick myself now, that I didn’t see it coming. But drawing on the tale of Gyges’ Ring and the question of what you would do if you had ultimate power (and what the result would in turn do to you), it asks, ‘Would you step into a world in which you had absolute power – all bar the power to leave?’




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