Well, it is that time of year again – Saint Patrick’s Day – March 17 – and for those who don’t know, Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, who, it is believed, brought the Christian faith to the far flung western isle 1,588 years ago.
Celebrating everything Irish all over the world with parades, music and food, this year the Irish Government has formally cancelled all parades and public gatherings in the interest of public health and safety due to the coronavirus pandemic. A similar thing happened nineteen years ago when the annual parade was cancelled due to the outbreak of the highly infectious foot and mouth disease.
As usual, St. Patrick’s Day occurs halfway through the Christian Lenten period before Easter – a time traditionally when many practising Christians would voluntarily give up something – as kids it might have been lollies, sweets and candies, later as adults, cigarettes, milk in the tea or coffee,alcohol and so on. But then along comes St. Patrick’s Day (yippee!) and all bets are off. Recognised by the church as a holy day of obligation, the feast day had a special dispensatory clause which allowed all fasting people to resume their ‘vice’ for that day only – hence the widespread popularity of the day which led to widespread drunkeness and debauchery in some cases! Not that I know anything about that, of course.
Anyway, in honour of my country’s patron saint, I have decided to cook some traditional Irish food – Dublin Coddle and Irish Soda Bread which, when eaten together and washed down with a Guinness is about as Irish as I can get in this scary, pandemic time.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day 2020 to everyone!
I kg. Good pork sausages
2 Tbsp. Of oil
450 g bacon rashers, roughly chopped
2 large onions sliced thickly
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 carrots sliced thickly
4 large potatoes, sliced thickly
Black pepper to taste
Bunch of fresh herbs – rosemary, thyme, sage
375 (at least) ml dry cider
3 Tbsp. plain flour
Put the flour into a strong plastic bag and season with salt and pepper.Cut the sausages into thirds and then dip into the seasoned flour.
Heat the oil in a thick-based pan and quickly seal the floured sausages in the hot oil for about three minutes.Remove and set aside.
Soften the onions and crushed garlic in the oil for a further 5 minutes.
Put the sausages, chopped bacon, onion and garlic in a large pot with the sliced potatoes and carrots.Tie the herbs together (use any herbs available or in, desperation, use ½ tsp. of mixed, dried herbs) and cover the lot with the dry cider.
Bring to a point of boiling and then reduce the heat to a very gentle simmer for at least an hour, or until the vegetables are cooked but not mushy.
Serve in deep bowls and garnish with chopped parsley.Accompany with draught Guinness and homemade soda bread.
Irish Soda Bread
Spread generously with butter and thick strawberry jam, Irish Soda bread evokes childhood memories of summer when the weather was so hot that the tar on the road would bubble.We’d put used ice-pop sticks into the tar and then chase each other around, trying to smear the tar on each other, knowing that whoever got smeared would be in trouble with their mum that night.Anyway, I digress…
Ingredients – Basically divided into two types – Wet and Dry ingredients.
3 cups of wholegrain flour
1 cup of plain flour
1 level tsp. of Bicarb of Soda
½ tsp. of Salt
1 tsp. of wheat germ*
1 tsp. of crushed bran
1½ cups of buttermilk (500 ml)
2 Tbsp. Of oil.
Sieve together all the dry ingredients into a large bowl.Go easy on the Bicarb of Soda – less is more in this instance! By sieving the ingredients, a finer mix is achieved as well as adding air to the mixture. * I didn’y haver any wheat germ so I used two teaspoons of chia seeds instead.
In a separate bowl, mix all the wet ingredients.
Add the wet to the dry.The mixture should be fairly sticky, so mix using a a flat bladed knife or a wooden spoon initially and then use your hands to make a smooth dough.
Turn it into a greased baking tin to get a loaf shape, or more traditionally, shape the dough into a flattish round shape and then make a deep cross cut in the dough.Sprinkle with a handful of plain flour and put in the middle tray of the oven (gas 200) for about 55 minutes.
Turn out onto a wire rack to cook.Eat while still warm if possible.
I love islands and island life, possibly because I was born on the far flung western isle (Ireland) or maybe because my childhood was suffused with island adventure tales – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s escapades on Kirrin Island (and the slightly more mature Adventure series – The River of Adventure, the Mountain of Adventure and, inevitably, the Island of Adventure with Philip, Jack and his parrot Kiki, Dinah and little Lucy-Ann) – and followed up with R.L. Stephenson’s Treasure Island and R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (which was the first book to ever make me cry when Bloody Bill, the pirate, died!).
Then again, perhaps it was the magic of flying on a two engine Fokker Friendship prop plane from Dublin airport to The Isle of Man with my parents for another childhood holiday. One time we flew from Collinstown, later to become Dublin International, and once, more exciting, left at midnight from one of the city’s quays on a ship that seemed to loom immense in the glare of lights. Magical gardens and bridges where a fairy toll is ‘demanded’, cats with no tails and a unique ‘Q-Celtic’ Manx language – sadly now extinct, the last native speaker having died in the mid seventies – Manx was related to Scottish Gaelic and Irish as opposed to the ‘P-Celtic languages of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. I still remember thebuzz and roar of the annual TT motorbike races around the island and the excitement it generated.
On the other hand, it may have been the summer picnics to Dalkey Island2 (the closest
island to where I lived in Dublin as a child) which seemed to require such advance planning on the part of my parents. The No. 8 bus from the heart of the city would go past our house on the corner of the Monkstown Road and on through Dun Laoghaire, Sandy Cove and eventually the terminus at Dalkey and from there the walk, lumbered down with tartan rugs, picnic baskets, flasks of hot tea, buckets and spades, to the harbour at Coliemore from where my father would bargain with brawny men to row us across to the uninhabited island of Dalkey Island* crowned with a Napoleonic era Martello tower. Uninhabited except for a few goats, a Martello tower, a freshwater spring and a ruined church. Family picnics, diving off the small, whitewashed rocks where the rowing boat left us off and picking up fresh mackerel for dinner on the homeward trip.
Whatever it was, it seems that those most magical times have extended into my adult life and have all been centred on islands. Simple man, simple dreams3, I suppose. By horoscope, I fall under Cancer – a water sign – and in the Chinese zodiac I am a (water) snake and despite having enjoyed myself in mountainous regions worldwide – The Himalayays in Nepal, the Andes in Peru, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border, I feel my strength and vitality are at their peak when I am close to water, especially salt water!
With so many thousands of islands in Indonesia I have explored so few, Bali ages ago and more recently, the Gilli Islands off Lombok – an easy four hour direct flight from Perth here in West Australia and then a 90 minutes taxi ride to the port at Bangsal from where the public boats set out for the islands. Bali is a subtle blend of festive Hinduism and local traditions, Denpasar and Kuta being over commercialisedbut it is still easy to escape to central Ubud and the black sand beaches along the north shore at Singha Raja. Everybody seemed talented – whether it was in dance or performance, wood and stone carving, music or hospitality and fluent in so many ways. I had to buy extra bags in Bali to accomodate all the carvings and knick knacks I acquired the first few times there.I recently came across a few thousand rupiah from that time and when I produced them in Lombok last week, people laughed in incredulity at my crumpled bills. They have been out of date for almost forty years! I headed off initially to Trawangan, the party island, with plenty of bars and loud music and the furthest out from Lombok but after two nights of drinking cheap cocktails – two for the price of one – made with local spirits – I had a vicious headache and decided to try the delights of Menos, the middle or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island, the smallest and the quietest the three. Beautiful, semi unspoilt islands – no cars or motorbikes only bicycles and little pony and trap carts and a sunrise on one side and a sunset on the other side of the island. Three days on Menos and, with my time running out, I spent the last three nights on Air, the island closest to Lombok itself. All three islands were unique in their own way and were small enough to stroll around in less than two hours and all offered scuba training and day and night dives and probably excellent value if that is the kind of thing you like. I’m a bit different – I just wanted clear, deep water and that’s where the islands fell down for me as, for a hundred metres or so around all three islands, the water was shallow and while appearing to be sandy, was, in fact, made up of dead and broken white coral shards which made getting into and out of the water difficult and painful. Coral cuts tend to fester easily and reef shoes – which, of course I didn’t have – would be an absolute necessity. As it was, the water was so shallow that trying to swim overarm out to deeper water my finger tips brushed the broken coral with each stroke. Not ideal unless you want to lounge by the swimming pools most of the resorts provided.
A relatively new ‘discovery’ for me, Lombok is the large island next to Bali and, in theory, should be just as beautiful. Certainly a fantastic ride from the airport skirting the capital and rushing past small villages and up over a jungle clad mountain with monkeys on the roadside, attracted by heaps of durian on sale, glimpses of the coast as we head down to the port. I am sure there are gorgeous beaches there too but I was set on new island horizons, the three small islands off the north west of Lombok.
Samosir, on the other hand, was almost an island, in the middle of Lake Toba, near Medan in Sumatra, practically the far end of the Indonesian archipelago from Lombok. My son fell, fully clothed, off the dock once we arrived and I had to jump in after him. That’s all I can really remember except for some really ratty accomodation.
So, on to all my favourite islands and how to rank them – by cost? (Rottnest island off Perth in WA is hideously overpriced); by beauty? (most S. E. Asian islands); by ease / difficulty of access? (although that has changed with airports springing up everywhere); by people? (all of them!). A listing in no particular order and with distinct memories of times past and present.
Ahh, Asia, every other island paled into significance once I came across Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samet.Those tropical paradises, first visited in 1981, originally by slow, flat-bottomed overnight ferry from Dongson to Koh Samui before a pickup truck ride to Chaweng or Lamai or Bo Phut beaches still represent earthly paradise to me. Back in the early 80’s, I’d pay something like a nightly 30 Baht for a beach-side hut on stilts and have banana pancakes for breakfast, Tom Yam soup for lunch and barbecued fish
for dinner, all washed down with icy Singha beer in cold frosted glasses and Mehkong whisky and soda water. Beautiful sandy beaches, relaxing beach massages and a gentle shelving beach so that you could run and dive straight into crystal clear waters. Now you can fly from most places into Ko Samui airport – one of the most appealing airports I have ever been in. Prices of course have gone up since my first visit and many beach side resorts also offer that abomination – a swimming pool! Koh Phangan was, I think, the ‘party’ island north of Koh Samui – the originator of the full moon parties? Koh Tao consisted of three tiny rocky islands connected by sand banks at low tide. I swam around the largest island once. There used to be just a handful of beach huts and a restaurant; now I believe it is packed but it must still be beautiful. All I remember of poor old Koh Samet are mosquitoes and ants!
I lived in Malaysia for three years and evocative names in Penang like Batu Fennenghi and Jalan Chulia where I bought my first ever SLR camera still stir me but it was off the east coast of northern Trengganu that the real tropical paradises of Perhentian and Redang lay. Deserted, at the time andused only by local fishermen for its fresh water supply – hence the name ‘Perhenti’ / Stop, in Malay. I used to hire a local fishing boat from Kuala Besut, where I lived for three years and would make almost weekly trips (on a friday) to the island and come back to the kuala, sun-burnt, salt bleached and dehydrated to revive myself with large bottle of cold Anchor beer, served from metal tea pots into heavy ceramic cups in the only Chinese cafe in the kampong. I camped on the island for nearlya week once while trying to study for my Graduate Record Examination into an American university, thinking I would have no distractions! Even further out than the Perhentian islands lay Redang. it was once used as a detention centre for Boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. I much preferred the Perhentians where I swam with sting rays, turtles and small (leg-long) sharks in waters no deeper than three or four metres. Gorgeous!
A fast ‘coffin boat’ from Brunei Darussalam would bring me to Labuan, a duty free island off the coast of Malaysian Sabah in Borneo – an absolute haven away from alcohol-free, strictly Islamic, Brunei.I used to treat myself and stay in the golf course hotel. Alternatively, I’d go over with some friends in their boat, depart Brunei legally, arrive in Labuan, stock up with up to 50 cases of beer (ballast, we used to call it) and return to Brunei illegally after dark when the customs had closed, off load the beer on a deserted beach where other friends were waiting and then report to Brunei customs the following morning, claiming the Evinrude engines had been giving us trouble and we had only just arrived! Another world, another time!
And then, of course, there is Hong Kong and with this view from my rooftop, what more could anyone ask?
Lamma island, just off the bottom of HK’s
southern bottom, was such a laid-back spot off frenetic Hong Kong. ‘Draw-string pants, mismatched socks and guitar music’ I once heard someone describe the lifestyle there compared to HK’s bankers. One ferry from HK Central would arrive at Sok Kwu Wan on the north east side of the island with its fish-farms and quayside restaurants. I used to walk from there to the other side of the island with its ATM, bars and more seafood restaurants and a different ferry from Yung Shue Wan back to HK.
Lantau Island had the big Buddha (the biggest, seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world,) as well as a great South African barbecue beachside restaurant with jugs of Margaritas. Cheung Chow, One of Hong Kong’s favourite suicide spots for some bizarre reason. Punters would rent a small chalet, close the doors and windows and light a charcoal barbecue and suffocate themselves.
Phu Quoc, off the most south westerly tip of Vietnam, looks closer to Cambodia and was fairly unspoilt and quiet when I was there about 20 years ago. So much so that the ‘resort’ I was staying in offered to sell itself to me after a night’s drinking with the owner! I choose what I would like to eat the following day from an ‘oral menu’ and he would make a trip to the local market just for me! The island boasted of its famed peppercorns and fish sauce which, locals zealously informed me, could not be brought on board an airplane lest the bottle break and its pungency imperil all on board!
Singapore was definitely my first ever S. E. Asian island! Gaping, like some yokel from the sticks, I went shopping along Orchard Road and bought my first – and only – portable typewriter – an Olivetti – there back in 1981.Do those things still exist? The incredible humidity in the air – like walking into the bathroom after somehow had a long, very hot shower with the door and windows closed and the coolness of the Long Bar, in the Raffles Hotel, surrendering to Singapore slings, was a blessed relief after the turmoil of shopping!
I did an MA in the State University at Stony Brook, half-way out on the north shore of Long Island, a long spit of land reaching out into the Atlantic from New York City and did my drinking in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson and my swimming in the creek on the northside and in the Atlantic on the south side.
I worked one summer on the island of Sylt, the jewel of the ‘German Riviera’! I was ‘ein nacht portier’ at Hotel Ursula in the main town of Westerland. Long, windswept sandy beaches where elderly people played volley ball in the nude and where I was eventually fired when it was discovered that I didn’t really speak any German but it took nearly three weeks before that was discovered!
The Île de Noirmoutier is not really an island as it is connected to the French mainland by a causeway flooded daily by the incoming – and fast – tide. Famous for its new potatoes, I remember it for lazy afternoons drinking white wine with a touch of Cassis with old friends.
Slow, laid back, very patchy wi-fi, Cuba offered differently aged Habana rums(apparently Bacardi sided with the Batista government forces against Castro and so signed their death warrant on the island) in generous mojito cocktails. Music in the bars at night – and everywhere – extravagantly old American cars lovingly tended (or rusted out heaps beyond repair), fat women squeezed into tight lycra and old men and women smoking cigars the size of a baby’s arm.
From Puno in Peru I went out to the amazing floating islands made of bundled reeds on Lake Titicaca, part of the border between Peru and Bolivia.
Trampoline-like under foot, the reeds were used for their shelters as well as their boats.
Half an hour by fast ferry off Fremantle in West Australia,Rottnest island is clearly visible from the mainland and like the Gilli Islands, there is no motorised transport – just bicycles and beautiful beaches, fresh octopus and, the island specific, quokkas (a type of small, short tailed wallaby). While beautiful and charming, the island is, in my opinion, mega expensive for what it offers..
Hainan island is China’s most southerly port and submarine base and I stayed in the same hotel where the Miss World beauty contest was once held in the southern city of Sanya. Parts of the beaches were cordoned off by the military, as I discovered when I ignored shouted warnings strolling along a sandy beach. Only the clunk-clunk of a pump-action shot-gun being cocked brought me to my senses.
Macau casinos held no
attraction for me but Portuguese food and wine certainly did in the area around the old harbour as well as crumbly old ‘Fawlty Towers’ type hotels. I’d return to HK laden with chorizo, olive oil, tinned anchovies and bottles of a slightly sparkling white wine.
Almost directly opposite the Chinese mainland city of Xiamen is Penghu County, a drab island claimed by Taiwan and reached by a three hour ferry trip from Xiamen itself. One of the most heavily shelled / bombed places after 1949 when the Nationalists retreated. The main culinary delight seemed to beoyster omelettes!
Next up, after the Thai Islands mentioned above must be Puerta Galera in The Philippines. A half day bus trip out of Metro Manila down to Batangas and then a ferry over to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Fantastic! I stayed at the end of a rocky promontory with a floating bar a 100 metres away. Cold San Miguel beer cheaper than a coffee or a coke, mellow Tanduay rum, tiny, bitter little calamansi limes, green skin, bright orange inside with slippery pips, friendly people and crystal clear, deep water – perfect.
In late December, the sun rose around twelve noon in Reykjavik, Iceland and set again at about four pm. Ideal in some ways – use your imagination – the hotel in the small town of Hverageròi where I ended up for some reason, was overheated and I pushed the window open to let some air in and the window froze open overnight, as did the lens of my camera later that day. Amazing to come across hot houses growing bananas and tropic plants benefitting from underground thermal power.
So, a retrospecive look at islands sparked by my recent trips to the Gilli Islands, Indonesia.
How do you listen to music? With the rise of things like Spotify – and ITunes etc., I am not sure how music is consumed nowadays. Lately, I just go to my iTunes library, pick songs, shuffle and then play. Before, I would wait until a friend passed me on an album – ‘listen to this – they will be greater than the Rolling Stones in a few years.’ (He was taking about the rise of U2 back in 1980). I moved to a small kampong on the west coast of Malaysia in 1981 and as a result I don’t know when I listened to a complete album – just shuffled songs from different genres and artists. Most music now is streamed, I suppose – God knows when I last bought a CD or – God forbid – an LP or a single 45rpm disc – but last night, I was sitting in a beach-front bar on one of the Gilli Islands off Lombok in Indonesia (more about the islands in a later post) and I listened to The Midnight Rambler by The Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed album from 1969. God, it sounded fantastic, so much so that I played the whole album from start to finish.
I’ve always been a Stones fan from when the Beatles wanted to hold my hand but the Stones wanted to spend the night together, much to my father’s disgust – ‘you wouldn’t know if those lads were men or beasts, would you look at the hair on them,’ he used to humpf.
Anyway, for music that is more than 50 years old, it has managed to not only withstand the test of time but to surpass (in my view) much of today’s music.That is not to say that I understand any of the lyrics, let alone actually hear some of the words but in that I know I am not alone.Who on earth can understand Jagger’s voice when he gets into his groove. I remember an old Whoopi Goldberg movie (was the movie actually called Jumping Jack Flash?) where she replayed the track of the same name, desperately trying to understandor decipher the words where she had to give up in frustration (C’mon Mick, speak English please). Next to impossible in my case last night despite being ably assisted by moonlight on the waters of Gilli Air and a few large bottles of Bintang. For years I used to sing along to Little Red Rooster ‘I am the little red rooster, two legs across the bay’ until I discovered the lyrics were actually ‘I am the little red rooster, too lazy to crow the day’!
God knows what I thought I was hearing last night with the Midnight Rambler (and why on earth do we all have to go – and to where? – but the underlying tone of violence ‘I’m going to stick my knife right down your throat’ was unmistakable along with a half reference to the Boston strangler but beautifully tempered with the lyrics from Love in Vain and ‘You got the silver, I’ve got the gold’.
What an amazing song writing duo Jagger and Richards were under the moniker of Nanker Phelge (along with other members of the band), as far as I remember.
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 2020and 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?
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 –
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
Hours of light
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 dailyarc 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.
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.
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.
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.
Back 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 cooking 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.
So, 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.
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 meaningfully 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 spread 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.
While 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.
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.
I 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. Note 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?
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
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*.
We 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.
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.
* 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.
It 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.