Happy New Year / Decade?

23:22 on Tuesday Dec 31 2019 as I write this.

Happy New Year – being in Australia, I suppose we are among the first to celebrate the New Year of 2020.

But here is a thought – certainly, it is a new year – who can disagree with that? – but is it also a new decade? Is tomorrow the start of ‘The Twenties’ or do we have to wait until this time next year before the decade kicks in?

There was no year 0 A.D. when Pope Gregory XIII instituted his new calendar in 1582 to replace the increasingly erratic Julian calendar. So, the first decade would have been from year 1A.D. to year 10 A.D. The next decade would have begun in year 11 A.D. and so on. Does that make sense? So, ‘following’ that line of thought, the decade called ‘the Twenties’ should not begin until 01 January 2021.

And yet tomorrow / today is 01 January 2020  and if it sounds like Twenty, looks like a Twenty and appears like a Twenty, surely it is ‘The Twenties’? Am I being a pedant here?

Who cares.  Happy 2020 everyone.

Celestial Time Keeping, Solstices, Atomic Clocks and the Celts

There I was thinking about the solstice – the longest day of the year  – and once again I missed it in the sense that I am a bit late with this post as well as actually missing the actual day itself. I used to love it when I was a child in Ireland. Summer time would have kicked in and it would be bright until at least 21:30 or even later. Anyway, here in Perth, in the southern hemisphere I decided to keep a lookout for it – Jun 21 in Ireland and Dec 21 here in Perth. Or so I thought.  How do you work out the longest day? By counting the hours and minutes of sunlight, I suppose and even that managed to elude me, for the most part!

As if that accurate counting of hours and minutes weren’t enough of a hurdle, Lord Kelvin first came up with the idea of using atomic transitions to measure time when he was in his mid-fifties. Born in 1824, he defined absolute zero as -273.15 Celsius or -459.67 Fahrenheit and after whom the base unit of absolute temperature in the International System of Units was named. (Probably something to do with living through Irish winters.) All I ever knew about time was that it was the instrument by which change is measured! A modern dictionary definition of time is more exacting ‘Time is the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, to the future.’

Here’s my attempt to measure time –

2019

Sat Dec 14

Sun Dec 15

Mon Dec 16

Tue Dec 17

Wed Dec 18

Thu Dec 19

Fri Dec 20

Sat Dec 21

Sun Dec 22

Mon Dec 23

Sun Rise

5:03

5:03

5:03

5:04

5:04

5:05

5:05

5:06

5:06

Sun Set

19:16

19:17

19:18

19:19

19:20

19:21

19:21

19:21

19:22

Hours of light

14:13

14:14

14:15

14:16

14:16

14:16

14:15

14:16

Anyway, one hundred and forty years after Kelvin came up with the idea of atomic clocks, which measure the electromagnetic signal emitted by electrons in atoms when they change energy levels, they have become our most accurate time and frequency standards today. Atomic clocks support time distribution services internationally, television broadcasts wave frequency and global navigation satellite systems.

In 1949 an atomic clock (less accurate than a quartz one) first demonstrated the physical concept before Essen and Parry built an accurate, and bulky, atomic clock to a caesium standard half a dozen years later.

By 1964, Hewlett-Packard had released much smaller rack-mountable devices with increasing accuracy which led the scientific community to redefine the second in terms of a specific atomic frequency in 1967.

Smart phones and us, presumably, have benefitted from these advances in technology as accurate, battery-driven atomic clocks became commercially available in 2011, most easily seen in Google or Apple Maps on our phones and in our cars. Four years later, NASA launched Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC), a miniaturised, ultra-precise, mercury-ion atomic clock more accurate then mere terrestrial clocks, which are maintained by national standards agencies, synchronised to an accuracy of 1 part in 1014 seconds per day! How did we ever survive without such pinpoint accuracy? How did I miss marking the longest day, the summer solstice, here in the Southern Hemisphere?

So, how was time measured before pendulums, wind-up watches, quartz timepieces, grandfather clocks and smart devices became ubiquitous? What served as units of time if seconds and minutes could not be conveniently measured or counted? The apparent motion of the sun across the sky, the phases of the moon, and the beat of a heart must have served some such purpose while day and night marked longer periods.

Time calculation still takes two distinct forms – the calendar, a geometrical way of organising intervals of time, and the clock, a physical device that counts the passage of time.

The ancient Egyptians may have divided the day into twelve smaller parts on their sundials, influenced no doubt by the 12 lunar cycles in a year. Their sundial used a gnomon to cast a shadow on a set of markings calibrated to the hour. The Romans used a clepsydra, a vessel with holes for the outflow of water. As the water emptied, it measured time, sort of like an hour glass with sand.

May the gods destroy that man who discovered hours and first set up a sundial here, to cut up my day!’

All of the above led me to the impending solstice which occurs when the Sun appears to reach its most northerly or southerly point as the Earth rotates and orbits the Sun. Bizarrely, I have been attempting to record daily sunrise and sunset where I live here in Perth – see the chart above – and it literally comes down to one or two minutes difference over the course of a week or so.

The Sun’s daily arc affects the length of daytime experienced and amount of daylight received during a given season. The two moments, when the angle of Earth’s rotational axis is towards the Sun, are the solstices, occurring annually, around June 21 and December 21, when the Sun’s motion comes to a stop. When it is the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere in Australia, it is the winter solstice in the Northern. The day of a solstice in either hemisphere has either the most sunlight of the year (summer solstice) or the least sunlight of the year (winter solstice). The summer solstice is when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and has the longest period of daylight. Conversely, the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily position in the sky.

The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (‘sun’) and sistere (‘to stand still’) because at the solstices, the Sun’s daily path seems to stop at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction. The Ancient Greeks used the term “ηλιοστάσιο” (heliostāsio), meaning stand of the Sun. The Sun’s westerly motion never ceases as Earth is continually in rotation.

The concept of the solstices was embedded in ancient Greek celestial navigation. When they realised that the Earth was spherical they devised the idea of an imaginary spherical surface rotating with the planets and stars fixed in it. The stars move across the inner surface of this imaginary celestial sphere along the circumferences of circles in parallel planes perpendicular to the Earth’s axis. The Sun and the planets do not move in these parallel paths but at an angle to the axis, bringing the Sun and planets across the paths of, and in among, the stars.

The exact solstice time is not easy to determine as I found out. The angle become smaller as the Sun gets closer to its maximum/minimum declination. The days before and after the solstice, are barely detectable with devices like sextant and impossible with more traditional tools like a gnomon. It is also hard to detect the changes on sunrise/sunset azimuth due to the atmospheric refraction changes.

According to Google, in 2019 the summer solstice will occur between December 20 and December 23 in the Southern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 22 in the Northern.

How did Iron Age societies calculate such things as the start or separation of seasonal change? Did the druids base their pronouncements on observations of the sky and how was time calculated?

Ancient Indian philosophers believed that Time repeated ages over the lifespan of the universe, leading to beliefs in rebirth and reincarnation, as did the Celtic druids.

Ancient Greek philosophers wondered if time was linear or cyclical and if it was endless or finite while the Islamic and Judeo-Christian world-view regard time as linear and directional, beginning with God creating the world. The traditional Christian view sees the present order of things coming to an ‘end time’ although I don’t think that was ever mentioned in my primary school catechism which was a list of questions and answers that we were expected to memorise. I can only remember two of them now – ‘Who is God? God is our father in heaven’ and ‘Who made the world? God made the world.’

Celtic and other nomadic groups more than likely used the moon as a time-measuring device as early as 6,000 years ago with Lunar calendars of 12 or 13 lunar months corresponding to cycles of Moon phases. Seasons quickly come adrift in a lunar calendar and it became the prerogative of the druid class to calculate and add days or months to some years to balance things out.

Julius Caesar put the Roman world on a solar, or Julian, calendar in 45 BC indicating the seasons relative to the apparent position of the Sun but that, too, was faulty as the astronomical solstices and equinoxes moved by more than ten minutes per year. The solar day was the time interval between two successive journeys of the Sun across the local meridian – an imaginary line running from north to south – passing directly overhead. At this ‘solar noon’ the Sun reaches its highest point or zenith on its daily arc across the sky. It was not until 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII introduced a correction with the Gregorian solar calendar, now the most commonly used calendar around the world but which does not correspond to cycles of Moon phase.

The Celtic Coligny calendar, found in France in 1887, dates back to the first century A.D. and was used to define the beginning and length of the day, the week, the month, the seasons, quarter days, and festivals and was an attempt to reconcile the cycles of the moon and sun, as did the modern Gregorian calendar. However, the Coligny calendar considers the phases of the moon to be important, and each month always begins with the same moon phase.Coligny4

Among the Celts, the year was divided into a light half and a dark half. As the day was seen as beginning at sunset, so the year was seen as beginning with the arrival of the darkness at the feis of Samhain (around 1 November in the modern calendar).The light half of the year started at Bealtaine (around 1 May, modern calendar). Longer periods were reckoned in nights, as in the surviving English term fortnight meaning two weeks.

Those accuracy issues make it possible to determine the solstice day only with the use of more complex tools, which of course I don’t have, nor would I know how to use them, but my smart phone weather gizmo gives me – I presume – accurate readings for sunrise and sunset each day, as in the attached table. How did ancient societies do it? This is not a rhetorical question!

For vague comparison, the Southern Hemisphere (Winter) Solstice of 21 June 2019 had sunrise 07:15 and sunset at 17:18 giving a meagre daylight of 10 hours and three minutes.

Kefir

All along the Black Sea route from Istanbul to Baku in Azerbaijan, every local restaurant a ‘lokanta’ in Turkey and beyond seemed to serve some type of frothy yoghurt-like drink. Intrigued, and not always wanting to drink alcohol before lunch, kefir was delicious, cool and tangy and yet different from place to place.

Originating in the Caucasus region, milk kefir, like most cultured or fermented foods, for example, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha, cheese and beer to name but a few, has a long and rich history rooted in simple agrarian cultures of preserving food. Fermented foods preserved in this way claim a range of health benefits from better digestion to a strengthened immunity system through the growth of good bacteria known as probiotics. Unlike prebiotics found in fibre-rich foods which go through the small intestine before being fermented in the large colon of gut, probiotics are live beneficial bacteria naturally created in fermented foods.IMG_2778

Probiotic kefir is, basically, a gelatinous mass of fermented milk, harbouring a generous variety of bacteria and yeast containing dozens of microorganisms, some of which haven’t even been identified, and which is used to make continual batches of milk kefir.

Kefir grains, so-called because small and numerous colonies of yeast and bacteria feed off the fat, or lactose, in full-cream milk, breaking it down during fermentation into simpler sugars, becoming bulky and lumpy like clotted cream or the surface of a cauliflower in appearance. These ‘grains’ are, in fact, the starter culture that will ferment fresh milk to continually produce the kefir drink itself. Over approximately 24 hours, the microorganisms in the kefir grains multiply and ferment the milk, turning it into the kefir dairy drink. Then the grains are sieved from the liquid and can be used again by adding fresh milk and the whole process can start over again.

IMG_2779Back in West Australia, after returning from the Caucasus, few supermarkets seemed to stock kefir but packets of freeze-dried cultures can be bought from health food stores where each packet can make up to 5 litres but by the third or fourth litre, the resulting kefir becomes progressively weaker and grains never form. This powdered starter, with far fewer bacteria and yeasts, could not compete with the microorganism content of milk kefir made from live grains which I later managed to locate on the Internet locally.

In a small zip lock bag was a live culture of some white, curdish looking goo which I poured into a glass measuring jug and added a cup of fresh, full-cream milk before covering the jug lightly and leaving it out on the kitchen counter for the bacteria and yeast to do their magic. A day later, I topped up the litre jug, gave it a stir and left it for another 24 hours.

Using a nylon sieve and a nylon spatula I drained the liquid into a glass bottle, poking and pushing at the goo in the sieve until I could see the grains. Back into the jug and another cup of milk to feed the microorganisms and to start the process off again.IMG_2781

Health benefits for probiotics in fermented products are widespread because their live microorganisms may help restore the natural balance of gut bacteria and may even help protect the heart by reducing “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and modestly lowering blood pressure. Claims that kefir boosts the immune system, aids in digestive problems, improves bone health and may even combat cancer are all made in support of kefir, but for me, it is a pleasant drink, certainly preferable to the ordinary yoghurt or milk I used to have before and presumably the fermentation has done nothing to alter the protein and calcium already present in the milk I used to make my daily kefir.IMG_2783

I suppose vague claims that probiotics such as kefir “supports good digestive health” are meaningless and the other touted health benefits are debatable but I look forward to the sour, tangy tart taste with that hint of effervescence, a ‘frizzante” tingle on the tongue in the mornings.

Quiche (Lorraine?)

I haven’t had a quiche for literally decades – one of my friend’s girlfriends used to make delicious ones – so on a whim I bought a smoked salmon quiche at a trendy and fashionable market recently. God, it was worse than awful in that it put my wife – who had never had a quiche before – right off the whole idea of the dish, when I suggested making one for the weekend.

I decided to do it from scratch, making my own pastry and only adding cheese and a few shallots to the traditional Quiche Lorraine which is made only with bacon, eggs and cream/crème fraiche.IMG_2784

This was no longer going to be a quiche lorraine in the purist sense because of the cheese and two shallots I found in the cupboard that I wanted to use up. I am neither French nor in Lorraine and as far as I am concerned, national dishes are allowed to develop once they escape from their country of origin.

For those who have no idea of what I am talking about, a quiche is an open-faced pastry pie with eggs, cream and lardons or bacon cubes. Of course there are endless variations with onion and garlic adding a more savoury flavour while added mature cheddar or a gruyère can be called, to keep the French flavour, a quiche au fromage, if you like. Add spinach and it becomes a quiche florentine, chuck in a few tomatoes and it becomes quiche provençale, throw in a handful of mushrooms and it is a quiche aux champignons.

Shocked by the amount of cream used in this recipe – the ultimate in cookingIMG_2785 extravaganza? – I must admit it is not something I often use or buy. On the rare occasions when I do, for a luxurious Irish Coffee or some special occasion, I would feel vaguely guilty. But I remember, as a child, we always used to have cream, along with butter and eggs and potatoes and buckets of milk and it was all considered healthy. However, you can, if you like, use milk instead but you will be missing out, I assure you, on the rich succulence that only cream can provide.

IMG_2788So, to work! I threw the flour, the cubed butter and the egg yolk into my aged food processor and dribbled in four spoonfuls of cold water as the processor grunted and heaved its way through the dough. I bundled out not quite coarse ‘breadcrumbs’ onto a floury board and gave it a bit of a knead before forming it into a rough ball which I wrapped in cling film and put in the fridge to ‘set’ for thirty minutes or so.IMG_2790

Using a wooden rolling pin, (I immediately thought of Andy Capp’s wife, Florrie, her hair in rollers, behind their front door, tapping a rolling pin IMG_2793meaningfully into her hand as she waited for her sot of a husband to come home) I rolled the pastry out as thinly as I could before lifting the sheet up carefully and draping it over a round baking tin.

I trimmed the edges of overhanging pastry and squashed a sheet of baking paper down on top of the pastry, filling the entire tin. I didn’t have any baking stones so I used a handful of rice and IMG_2797spread that evenly over the baking paper before putting the lot into a 180 degree C oven for about 10 minutes. After that, I removed the paper and rice – didn’t spill any, either! – and put the pastry tin back in the oven for another ten minutes.

IMG_2799While that was baking, I chopped up two small shallots and tossed them into a pan with a spoonful of oil – I had no more butter, having used it all for the pastry. After the shallots softened a bit, I tossed in the cubed bacon and stirred it around for a while before leaving it for ten minutes or so.

Just in time I remembered to take the pastry tin out of the oven – a lovely golden hue and a slightly darker crust – and left it to cool slightly.IMG_2802

While the bacon and shallots were braising, I broke four eggs into a jug, added the leftover white from the first egg and then spooned in a substantial glop of the crème fraiche, although I actually used some type of cooking cream, and then several generous glugs of fresh cream and a good pinch of freshly ground nutmeg before giving it all a good whisk. By that time, the bacon bits and shallots were ready so I tipped them out onto kitchen paper to drain a bit and grated up two large handfuls of gruyère. Scattering the bacon mixture and the grated cheese into the empty piecrust, I poured my eggy-creamy mixture on top of the lot, filling the piecrust 3/4 full.

IMG_2807I pulled out the oven rack and gently lowered the nearly filled pie tin down before topping it up with the rest of the creamy egg sauce. That way, I didn’t slop any on the floor while banging the lot into the oven at 180 degrees C.

I took a look at it after about 20 minutes and it looked gorgeous but still runny so I gave it another ten minutes. Even then, it was still soggy in the middle so I put it back for a further 15 minutes, took it out and, third time, it seemed perfection … until I tried to get it out of the baking tin. IMG_2811Note to self: next time use one of those baking tins where you can push up from beneath the bottom.

Using a spatula and a wooden spoon, I managed to heave it out, almost unbroken, onto a plate and then … what’s the word for ‘heaven’ in French?IMG_2812

Hmmm, what am I going to do with the leftover fresh cream? Maybe … a coffee?

 

 

Ingredients (for the pastry)

175g / 6oz plain flour

100g / 4oz cold butter, cubed

1 egg yolk

4 spoons of cold water

Ingredients (for the filling)

150g bacon bits (or lardons if you can get them from a deli)

2 small red shallots, chopped finely,

50g / 2oz Gruyère

200ml / 7 fl oz cream

200 ml crème fraiche or cooking cream

4 full eggs plus the white left over from the yolk used in the pastry

Pinch of ground nutmeg.

 

 

 

Clean Money

Cleanliness might be the last thing that comes to mind when thinking about money. While a trillion microbial bacteria live all over us and, no doubt, on our money too, most of us probably never give its purity a thought.

At the same time, unconsciously, we associate money with dirt – filthy lucre, money requiring laundering, filthy rich (as opposed to dirt poor), and so on, all spring to (my) mind automatically – but only recently I became aware of the concept of clean money, not the freshly laundered staff, and how it earns that epithet through the use to which it is put. Simply put, clean money is money that doesn’t harm people or the planet but is used for the benefit of all.

Recently a Royal Banking Commission here in Australia has slammed all four of the major banks for greedy and unscrupulous behaviour towards their customers. Fees charged to the accounts of deceased people, or charged for advice never given were some of the proven charges while more than sixty million dollars were loaned to dirty fossil fuel projects in the last ten years.

While many of us (or at least some) try to lead meaningful lives – donating to charities, sorting our domestic garbage, eating organic, even going vegan – increasingly people want to know whether their money is used beneficially, morally and for the sake of the planet and future generations and how the products made with our money may be damaging people and the planet.

Clean money thinks through where materials came from, who assembled them and whether the process was fair or unfair, empowering or disabling. Does it matter? Do we understand where our money goes, for what and for whom?

Along with clean food and clean energy, clean money is emerging, blended by both the massive ‘green’ movement worldwide and the colossal transfer of wealth from the well-heeled Boomers on to Gen X and the Millenials*.

41OVY7BWCgLWe all (mostly) place our money into banks nowadays but I certainly have never questioned – much less thought – about what the bank does with my, and other people’s, money. The simple question prompted by Joel Solomon* in his recent book, The Clean Money Revolution – Do you really know what your money is doing? – struck me like a hammer blow. What if, God forbid, my bank is investing my money in chemical or biological weapons programs or in strip mining the ocean floor or cutting down the Amazon jungle or…? You get the picture.

So, where do our banks invest our money and how do we find out and what is my personal bottom line? Perhaps because of the scandals unearthed by the banking commission here, there have been a lot of attention paid to responsible banking with smaller banks and credit unions that proclaim their aversion to investing in such things as fossil fuels, intensive animal farming, gambling, arms and the tobacco industries to name but a few while still returning a prosperous return.

Responsible banking means using the customers’ deposits to loan to people, to community organisations and to businesses in order to have a positive economic, social, environmental and cultural impact on the world.

Responsible banks are owned by their customers, not the shareholders, with profits returned to customers through better rates and fees while investing in such areas as community housing suited to people with special care needs, lending responsibly to individual customers an amount they can afford to repay, sustainable, affordable and community-focused land developments and renewable energy projects and not for profit community organisations, all aimed to create positive social and environmental change.

Perhaps antecedent to this ‘new’ banking morality was the earlier focus on Fair Trade products as society moved from the Baby Boomer generation in the middle of last century to that of the (possibly more) socially aware Generation X and the Millenials who followed them, born towards the last quarter of the previous century.

Right now, the Millenials are on the edge of the largest transfer of inter-generational money ever experienced in human history. Baby Boomers here in Australia probably make up less than a quarter of the population while hanging onto to more than half the wealth of the country. During the next twenty years, at least three trillion dollars are expected to change hands from one generation to another, the Millenials. Worldwide the figure must be huge.

Unfortunately, much of this money the Millenials will inherit is, by its very nature, dirty money, earned from non-ethical investments in such things as arms, fossil fuels and tobacco to name but a few. No blame, of course, can be attributed to generations who, in their turn, profited from such things as slavery and the opium trade for example. No doubt, just like us, people trusted the banks to do the right thing with their money. However, unlike the present generation which has grown up with the Internet and widespread knowledge, our parents were probably unaware of where the banks were investing their money.

This generation does not have that luxury of ignorance. Now there is no excuse, we can join the growing number of clean banks that support such things as divesting from fossil fuels into renewable energy, organic foods or other ethical possibilities, like cleaner manufacturing or preventive health or waste reduction.

No matter how much or how little we have in some bank or other, there is one thing we can all do and that is check if our banks make their money in a way that aligns with our personal values, If not …?

Personally, I am looking forward to closing down my account with the subsidiary of one of the four major (dirty) banks here in Australia and opening up with a clean one.

By aligning money with values everybody can benefit from what their money is doing right at this moment somewhere in this shared world without sacrificing our planet.

That will certainly be easier for me than going vegan!

 

  • A rough definition of some of the terms used here –

Baby-Boomers refers to the generation born in the two decades, more or less, after the WWII, so from 1946 – 1964

Gen(eration) X covers the following period 1965 – 1979, and

Gen(eration) Y – also known as Millenials – takes in 1980 – 1994, while

Gen(eration) Z deals with those born between 1995 – 2015

Gen Who Knows? – 2016 – 2038?

  • Solomon, Joel. The Clean Money Revolution . New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.

 

An Old Celtic of Love and Death – Part 7

A Ewe between Two Rams

Smoke lay heavy in the night air as the burning thatch on the Craobh Ruadh spread down from the rafters, the flames licking hungrily at the seasoned, dry wooden walls of the old building. Eoghean had stamped away to bury his clansmen and to drown his anger in the vat of Ol nguala leaving Conor to curse at the flight of the brothers with his woman.

“You have to help me here, Cathbad,” Conor pleaded. “Who better than yourself to remember the prophecy when it was you, yourself, that made it? Help me now before this goes any further. Lookit, haven’t I already lost a fine son? What more do you want me to lose?” he went on, the sullen rage he felt at Crúscraid’s impotent attack and Conall Cernach’s desertion welling up inside him.

“I tried to warn you with that prophecy but you refused to listen, Conor. You were a fool then and you are a fool now, bringing doom on all of us,” Cathbad thundered, his staff thumping the stone flagged floor of the great hall.

“Offer them terms of peace, yes, … peace and friendship, I swear it,” Conor insisted. “Tell them that they need not fear us but swear fealty to us and all will be forgotten, for who would refuse the services of the mighty lords of Uísliu.” Conor cursed deeply inside himself and continued to press the draoidh for a solution to make the brothers put down their arms.

***

Cathbad guessed all three had been wounded to some degree in their frantic flight and would be unable to travel far. There was only one place in the vicinity where they might feel safe, he guessed, the most likely place such a group would flee to. And yet, there was just a chance that the prophecy could still be averted if he could find the brothers and talk to them. He did not fear for his safety at their hands for he was a draoidh and although no one went willingly into the dark woods at night for fear of the little men and the Sídhe that roamed the woodlands, Cathbad encountered nothing except a large white owl which swooped silently down from the trees on his left as he approached the standing stones on the crest of the low hill to the south of Eamhain Macha.

The stones, the height of a tall man, formed a crude circle fifteen paces across. One of the stones had fallen and Cathbad caught the glimmer of a small fire inside the circle from where he stood.

There was a sliver of a moon, now, cold and high and the night was bitterly cold and Naoise, fearing they would perish without a fire, had built one carefully in the lee of the fallen stone in a small dip in the ground.

“You need not fear me,” Cathbad said softly as he stepped out from behind one of the taller stones and watched the girl jerk her head up from where she had been lying, curled up beside the small fire.

“Cathbad? Is that you?” Naoise stood up from where he had been sitting on a small rock beside the woman, his sword extended.

“I come with a message from the king,” the draoidh said solemnly, stretching out his arms so that his robe clung to him, outlining his spare figure. “An offer of peace with terms of friendship. Wrongs have been done on both sides but enough blood has been spilt. This madness must stop now for the sake of the kingdom. Lay down your arms now and swear fealty again to Conor. This time he means it, I am sure,” the draoidh continued, seeing the hunger and the need on the tired faces of the men. Deirdre was pale and, except for the crust of dried blood on her arm from a jagged cut, she seemed unhurt. “Don’t listen to him,” she begged. “Don’t you see? It is another trap. Conor will never stop, I’m telling you.”

The draoidh moved over to where the girl crouched and gently examined the gash on her arm before opening a small vial and smearing honey on the wound and binding it tightly with a scrap of linen he took from within his robe.

“Beauty can stir feelings of hate as well as desire in some men’s breasts,” Cathbad continued, staring into the girl’s frightened eyes, “But Conor now seeks peace with you if you will only swear fealty to him and to the kingdom. “ It’s the only way,” he went on and leaning forward, from his closed fist, he threw a handful of herbs and aromatic twigs on the fire around which they all sat. There was silence then as the colour of the fire changed and sparkled brightly before a thick and pungent smoke filled the air around them. Cathbad waited a few moments before slipping easily to his feet, and watched as talk around the fire died out and the woman remained silent.

***

“You fool,” Cathbad hissed, “don’t you see what you have done? You told me that you needed their strength to repel Medb of Connachta’s schemes and that there would be peace between you and them if they would only lay down their arms and swear allegiance to you.”

“I’m the fool, am I?” Conor snarled. “You think I would let my honour, my laws, my very rules be flouted by upstarts like those bastards. I treated them with honour and grace until they wounded a loyal retainer of my guest. Blood calls for blood, you know that but my hands are clean.” He laughed cruelly, switching mood suddenly. “My good friends from the far Dá Mumhainn will be more than happy to exact vengeance for me, seeing as that bastard brood destroyed many of their clansmen,” he nodded his head in the direction of the doors.

“Come,” he declared, walking outside the hall to where dawn was approaching and a thin streak of grey edged the blackness of the night. The three young men and the girl were kneeling, their arms securely tied behind their backs, on the pounded earth beside the white path. Conor’s force had surprised the somnolent group who had put up little resistance when they had burst out of the darkness and they had been led back, yoked at the neck and with their arms tied behind their backs, to the inner circle inside Eamhain Macha where Conor waited, gloatingly, for them. Beside him stood the black bearded giant, the king of Fermagh, Eoghean Mac Murthacht who glowered at the captives. The faint grey light blended into a pale salmon pink along the horizon as the sun hovered behind the trees to the east.

“With your permission, my lord, these outlaws have wounded my own nephew, slaughtered my unarmed men, insulted my house and honour and only blood can wipe clean the measure between us.”

Conor paused and looked at the object of his envy, hate and fear. Any king, he reminded himself, would be loath to take back such traitorous, oath-breaking bastards as these black-hearted warriors for soon enough, he knew, they could turn their schemes on him and his kingship. He motioned with his head and a retainer pulled the woman away from the three kneeling men.

“It is I, your grateful ally, that should beg favours of you, my noble lord,” Conor said, gravely nodding his head, exulting within as Eoghean Mac Murthacht drew his sword and stepped forward towards Naoise.

Eoghean paused a moment, as if feeling the weight of sword in his hand, before his shoulder muscles bunched as he rose the heavy blade to chop down towards Naoise’s exposed neck when Illand, lying unnoticed on the path beside Naoise, his life blood trickling away from the gaping holes in his back and belly, gathered his draining strength and surged to his feet in front of the kneeling Naoise. The sword hissed down, cutting deep into the corner of the youth’s neck and shoulder. Eoghean cursed and used his booted foot to push Illand off the blade before swinging it again and burying it deeply in the other side of his neck, almost severing the head. He jerked the sword free and prepared to strike anew at Naoise when Ainle called out, squinting up at Eoghean. “Hold your hand there, and a request, if it pleases you. Kill me first, I implore you for I am the youngest of my brothers and would not wish to see those whom I love more than life itself, be killed.”

“Listen not to him,” Ardan cried. “I would not have it so. Being the youngest, Ainle should live yet the longest of us three. Kill me first, I beg you.”

“Do neither such thing,” Naoise called out “for here at my side I had the sword that Manannan, the son of Lir, once gave to our clan and for a while I carried it as befitted the leader of our clan and the stroke of it cleaves cleanly through all; so strike the three of us together, and we will all die together at the one time as we have lived all our lives together.”

Mac Murthacht looked around for the sword and called out for it but the sword no longer hung by Naoise’s side. A bondsman came running out from the hall nearby where the sons of Uísliu’s arms had been heaped inside the door.

“A fine blade,” he said admiringly, throwing aside the tooled leather scabbard and extending the blade towards the captives. He sighted along the dull sheen of the dark iron blade, the thin groove along the top inside of the blade for the blood to run, making it easier to pull the weapon out of the clinging flesh.

“Lay down your heads, then lads and let it be known that I, Eoghean Mac Murthacht, king of the Fermagh, do so treat the traitorous scum of my proud ally, the king of the Ulaidh.” And he slashed down hard and expertly so that the three heads of the young men bounced together on the hard ground as the blood spouted and pooled around them and one bound body twitched a last time.

A roar of thunder sounded and the noise rolled over Eamhain Macha for a count of three as Conor looked up from the blood-splattered Mac Murthacht to the darkening eastern sky where thick clouds blotted out the sun. Lightning flickered within ripe, plum-coloured clouds.

Deirdre shrugged away the restraining hand of a tall man with a ragged fringe of hair, his drooping eye, bloodshot and fearful gaping at the scene around them and rose to her feet, crying pitifully, whipping her long fair hair from side to side as she violently swung her head backwards and forwards. Throwing herself forward, she fell across the headless torso of Naoise and tenderly kissed his chest three times before allowing herself to be pulled up like one who had lost her wits.

“Come now to my house, my queen,” Conor said, stepping forward and cutting the thongs that bound her hands behind her back. “There is no need to be fearful, or to feel hatred or jealousy or sadness for together we will make a new future for the Ulaidh and the kingship.”

Seeing Deirdre glance bewilderedly at Eoghean and himself, Conor smirked and winked at the blood-streaked ruffian beside him.

“Come now, Deirdre, you have the cute look of a ewe caught between two rams. I am a fair man and I’ll give you a choice – a night with my good self or a year with my friend here,” and he nodded towards Eoghean standing over Naoise’s headless body before pulling her close to him, his arms encircling her slim figure.

Deirdre raised her arms around Conor’s middle and her small hand touched the bone handled knife he had used to cut her bonds and she seized it quickly, pushing Conor away and holding the knife to her throat.

“May your bones grow hair and rot, Conor Mac Nessa, false king of Eamhain Macha and treacherous dog that you are, for that is no choice at all. Know this, false king Conor, for you have brought destruction on yourself and on your clan for no one in the Ulaidh will profit from your actions this day. Gone from this world are the sons of Uísliu and with them the spirit of nobility, the courage of the truly brave, for they dared all for a woman’s love and know that I gave it freely to them that set me free from the bonds of your rapacious desires.” Deirdre thrust the dagger up under the soft part of her throat and remained proudly standing for a moment before her legs gave way and she slid gracefully to the ground, her blood mingling with the pool surrounding the sons of Uísliu.

The End

 

Tombland*

* See previous posts on Shardlake and Lamentations

Tombland is the seventh novel in C. J. Sansom’s superb Shardlake* series set firmly in Tudor England with its splendour, poverty, ignorance, cruelty, religious bigotry and power in the hands of the few. Matthew Shardlake, despite his lowly background and physical deformity, sensitive and humanitarian, has risen through the ranks of Lincoln’s Inn, struggling to keep his personal values aligned with demands of the state. A senior, clever and persistent lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, he is unwillingly embroiled in the often dangerous and threatening affairs of state by Cromwell, Archbishop Crammer, Catherine Parr and, and in this, the latest novel in the series, by the lady Elizabeth, Henry’s teen-age daughter by Anne Bolyn.

In 1549, about 2000 noble dukes and earls (gentlemen who did not have to earn their living with manual toil) lorded it over the rural and agrarian population of the kingdom, believing the feudal order matched that of the divine body, with the king as head and the nobles representing the arms and trunk while the vast bulk of the manually working population, so far below the head and the arms, could be looked down upon, and treated, as mere chattels.

The late 1540’s in Tudor England were not happy times – not that they were particularly happier under the vacillating rule of Henry VIII – with inflation rampant, and currency debased to finance disastrous wars against the French and the Scots while the noble elite, completely disregarding the needs of their tenants, pushed them off their meagre common land holdings and enclosed the land for rearing sheep to take advantage of the burgeoning trade in wool. Add to that the mistrust and resentment around the new religious changes, initiated by Henry as far back as 1534 and continued on after his death in 1547 by the lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset, and facing the prospect of a poor harvest for that year, Merrie England was ripe for revolt and repression.

IMG_2738It is into Norwich, England’s second biggest city, that Matthew Shardlake, Lincoln’s Inn Sergeant-at-Law, is sent at the behest of the young Lady Elizabeth, to investigate and ensure the fairness of a trial for John Bolyn, a distant relative of Elizabeth’s mother, who stands accused of murder.

Assisting the persistent, intelligent and caring lawyer is Nicholas Overton, a gentleman, disinherited by his father. Jack Barak, his former assistant, incapacitated in a vicious sword fight in a previous Shardlake episode, also happens to be in Norwich, working in the Assizes and readily agrees to assist Shardlake once more, despite fierce opposition from his wife back in London.

And that is all so beautifully explained in the first few pages that the most devoted fan would nod in admiration at the succinct summarising of the previous 6 novels. For the newcomer, the summary brings everything into focus so that the story can begin.

Simultaneous with Shardlake’s seemingly hopeless attempt to discover the facts around Bolyn’s arrest, the agrarian unrest spills over, trapping Shardlake, his gentleman assistant Overton and the commoner Barak in a popular peasant uprising led by a prosperous small farmer and landowner or yeomen, Robert Kett and his brother.

With his strong sense of morality and justice, Shardlake is able to see and understand the wrongs the common people labour under their corrupt and selfish landlords yet because of his upbringing and education, is unable to commit himself fully to the rebellion. Nicholas Overton, his gentleman assistant, has no such qualms and speaks his mind so freely in favour of the divine order that he ends up in Norwich Castle while Jack Barack fully commits himself to the revolt.

Despite initial early successes and the bloody taking of Norwich, the rebellion is doomed to failure as the professional English army, bolstered with foreign mercenaries, advances on Kett’s makeshift force of farmers and peasants on Mousehold Heath and Shardlake is faced with the far-reaching implications of the murder case he was sent to investigate as his friends become entangled with what will clearly be the losing side. For the first time ever, the humanitarian and all too human lawyer must dissemble and gloss the events that threaten to overwhelm him unless he chooses to evade his past loyalties and beliefs.

Not a light read in the sense that the book is a hefty 800 pages with a further 50 pages of Sansom’s historical essay on the background to Kett’s Rebellion, ruminating on such things as the class and status of people at the time, the great inflation caused by the Tutor wars, the religious changes sweeping the country and the enclosure of the common land and the form the rebellion took on the huge encampment on Mousehold Heath overlooking the city of Norwich.

Once again, Sansom has produced a brilliant detective thriller firmly set within Tudor times and seen through the eyes of a honest and moral man struggling to make sense of the bewildering times he was living through. Fantastic.