Elena Ferrante (2002 [2015]) The Days of Abandonment translated by Ann Goldstein.


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I recently watched a film by Andrew Haigh on DVD, 45 Years. It came with the usual plaudits, but was in an ugly word: boring. 45 Years never felt so long. Elena Ferrante The Days of Abandonment is, I guess, all the things 45 Years was trying to be, without sticking its tongue out in the form of a short novel and saying: Fuck You.  The plot is very similar, a woman coming to terms with loss of the things she thought she knew and held true. In Ferrante’s opening Olga has been married for fifteen years to Mario and they have two children, boy and girl, the sickly Gianni and the more spiteful Ilaria and an Alsatian dog, Otto. The opening perfectly captures the wistful tone that quickly turns to fury and madness and then understanding.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, our children and admitted he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.

A short-hand explanation here is to superimpose the however many stages of grief. Olga is in denial. She believes she can make thing better by being better, more herself than she’s ever been. Mario will then recognise what a terrible mistake he has made and everything will go back to the way it was before. But haunting Olga is the childish memory of the poverella, a woman from Naples, a kind woman that smelt good and gave children in the streets treats to eat and was married to a man from Abruzzi, who admittedly wasn’t up to much, but was her world and they had two children. When the man from Abruzzi left her for another woman, the poveralla lost everything, including the name she would be remembered by and drowned herself. The poverella turns up, a presence, in Olga’s apartment in Turin to warn her modern heir that her son has an infection and urgently needs a doctor and  unless she gets the dog to a vet it will die as it has been poisoned. Olga knows that to be true, but she cannot open the front door. The key doesn’t seem to work and she is in such a daze Illaria is given the job of hitting her with a tool used in a botched attempt to open the door, whenever she zonks out. A task her daughter takes to with great zest, drawing blood from her shin.

Prior to this Olga herself had drawn blood, battered Mario in the street and tried to rip the earrings he’d once given her and were now worn by Carla, a student her husband had tutored when she was fifteen, and who he was now fucking and had probably being doing so since then. ‘For five years he had been secretly enjoying that body.’

But there is a kind of biblical lament of Olga’s memories (and all women’s) that give the book such a punch.

‘I thought only of him.’

‘Mario expanded. We contracted…’

‘I had gone with him when he didn’t have the courage to appear…’

‘I had taken away my own time and added it to his to make him more powerful…’

‘I had put aside my own aspirations to go along with his.’

‘At every crisis of despair I had set aside my own crises to comfort him.’

‘I had disappeared into his minutes and into his hours.’

Like the poverella, Olga has been erased.  But unlike the poverella Olga refused to be erased. She questions instead what she had become. Not what Mario had made her become, what she had chosen to become, ‘a reed that emits the sound of falsehood’. Again there is that biblical tone, the most powerful knowledge is that of the self. ‘He was blinded by the blonde, but I have given myself the task of analysing point by point, our fifteen years together’.

As the poveralla said so long ago: ‘I am clean. I am true. I play my cards on the table.’

Elena Ferrante plays her cards on the table, some turn up aces, some twos and some trumps, but all are true. This is a powerful book which shows (not tells) what it means to be fucked over by a weak man, as so many woman are, and yet rise up again and claim her dignity. Olga come not to despise Mario, but understand him and herself better.


Richard Holloway (2012) Leaving Alexandra. A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. Richard Holloway (2016) A Little History of Religion.

I guess I should review these books individually, but it’s my blog, I have god-like powers and can do anything I want. I asked Richard Holloway to sign my book, which is his autobiographical writing, when he visited Dalmuir library. He asked me what I wanted him to write in the flyleaf, I said that book you were talking about earlier, Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just because I wanted to read it. I’m with the Society of Friends on this one, no kowtowing. No bended knee. Books are holy things. But what they mean that’s a mystery. Perhaps a blessed mystery.

A Little History of Religion has the merit of being little.  There’s not a lot of love there, references to divine love, followed by divine genocide, but the common feature of both books is a movement from faith to doubt. Richard Holloway is a prolific author. He is a former Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity. A theist believes in God. An atheist doesn’t believe in God. And an agnostic believe in both view. I’m a bit like that, only worse, or better, depending on your point of view. Richard Holloway’s autobiography, in particular, is a beautiful book because it is true. True to who he is now and compassionate towards who he was. Wisdom often takes a lifetime. Perhaps it never comes. And some religions that believe in the merits (and demerits) of reincarnation believes it may take lifetimes. I’m in no hurry to find out the truth.

The commonalities of both Holloway’s books are a belief not in doubt but in faith. The most dangerous kind of hate is certainty. The latest example is Trumpism, a back to the wall beleaguered party that triumphs against all the odds. This is combined with revanchist call for revenge against all those against them. Mary Queen of Scots for example had John Knox and his followers singing outside her window and shouting you’re getting it hen, as soon as we’ve got it. And they were right, but it took three blows of the axe, making her suffer first. She was going to hell anyway, or heaven, if you were a good Catholic.  The Plains Indians danced their feet off, but the white man wasn’t covered in ash, although Holloway does acknowledge buffaloes did come back, not so the Indians. Of course, the Palestinians on the West Bank shouldn’t be there because God bequeathed that land to the Israelites and everybody else is an interloper, because God can’t be wrong and no international laws or treaties can make that right. The Promised Land means The Promised Land. Move pal. Or else.  Just the same as Trump can’t be wrong because he is considered so right about making America great again. Anybody that have doubts is getting it. First on the hate list, China, second, Russia, next up the rest of the world. On bended knee we must come and return to a past that never existed to pay homage.

It’s not Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao or indeed Emperor Nero that provides the template for certainty among uncertainty but Nick Bostrom in his book Superintelligence. When the robots or whatever you want to call them figure out –very quickly – that the humans they are ostensibly serving aren’t very smart then they become gods. But even Gods have uncertainties, moments of doubt. These superintelligent robots will use all the earth and its distant stars capacities to reduce uncertainty to a point where it becomes absurd, in human terms, not that there will be any need for humans. But all religions are absurd, but they have a logic to them.

Holloway preaches a message of love. A parable he frequently uses is the parable of the blind man and the elephant. I attributed this to Rumi, but I may be wrong. Each clutches a trunk, an ear, a leg and describes what they feel and what they see. All are telling the truth of what they perceive. But when partial truth become the whole truth each sect goes to war over their vision and allows no dissent. A tusk can never be an ear, because God does not allow such things.

Note the righteousness of religion. It can never be wrong, because God cannot be wrong. A tautology that is rarely taught. Another parable Holloway is fond of is the Good Samaritan.

A man fell among thieves who left him naked and unconscious on a dangerous and deserted road. A priest came along followed by his assistant. They were good men who wanted to help, but their religion prevented it…Next along is a Samaritan, one of the races Jews were forbidden to associate with. His religion has the same prohibitions as theirs.

Both men are religious in their own one, but only one is compassionate as God is compassionate. And it’s a common refrain in Holloway’s writing, ‘the institution that claims to represent God can easily become God’s greatest enemy’. Amen to that.

Another parable Holloway favours is Matthew’s parable of workers in the vineyard all coming at different times and being paid the same rate of pay. God’s like that Holloway is saying and we don’t really understand Him (although He might be a She, but is never an It). If you don’t believe me, he says, read Job. According to scripture God gets into a bet with the devil and lots of bad things happen to Job, including losing his wife and family, all his wealth and suffering from endless and painful diseases. What makes it worse is ‘Job’s comforters’. They seem to have all the answers, but when God appears he’s not happy (God is never happy, or he doesn’t appear) and his standard stick is ‘my wrath is kindled against you and your two friends…’ I guess that means hell and everlasting damnation. But God is good to Job. He stops torturing him. And he gives him a new family and even greater wealth. Holloway is good at this bit. Basically, he’s saying what anyone with common sense would say, ‘fuck off, god, I liked my old family, even the smelly dog.’ And I’m with Holloway with this one if Abraham agreed to sacrifice his son, well, there’s something a bit sick about that.

Holloway’s call for a godless morality might be beyond us, for the very good reason we might not be here much longer. I don’t believe in the rapture. I believe in the apocalypse of greed and gross stupidity. Oh, well, I guess, our parents have been saying the same things for years. Things ain’t the way they used to be. I’m sure I’ll look good as a dead person. Go on, with your god-like powers, use that line from The Life of Brian. ‘We’re all individuals!’

Voice from the back of the crowd, ‘I’m not.’

Television Programme of the year – Planet Earth II

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Must see television programmes are like a good marriage, you’ve heard of them, but up close they rarely exist. But this is David Attenborough territory. So you can suspend belief and watch this like a child, with open-mouthed wonder. My bet is you’ve never seen over a million penguins on Zavodoski island, a live volcano rock. That’s a lot of methane and lots of guano. Until we get smell-o-vision we’ll not get the real feel, but we do see them feeding and falling and generally getting on with things and wondering what species these lumbering bipeds are. Or perhaps you’d rather watch golden eagles with twelve-foot wing spans diving at two-hundred- miles-per-hour and  fighting over the carrion of a dead fox in the Pyrenees. A standout is newly hatched iguanas trying to make it to the safety of the rocks and sea, while colonies of snakes try to eat them. I mean, who really cares about beasties like this? But it’s absolutely riveting.  How about snow leopard in the high Andes? Or if you don’t fancy that, leopards hunting wild pigs in an Indian city.  A flamingo parade in heat that would peal paint. And for a bit of added comedy bowerbirds stealing a man-made love heart for his bower  and a shiny toy car in an Australian golf course. Langurs jumping from rooftop to rooftop and stealing out of people’s hands, fruit and vegetable and most other things that take their fancy.   There is great beauty in such diversity. And we’re rooting for all kinds of bugs, and beasts, we’ve most likely never heard of. Attenborough does allude to man-made destruction. Encroachment of the Alps by humans and snow and ice also retreating in the Andes (glacier loss estimated at fifty-percent less than 30 years ago) and the temperature in the Himalayas soaring. It is Attenborough’s job to entertain and inform, with the former necessarily outdoing the latter.

But the figures are stark. See these creatures in their natural habitat in all their glory, because they won’t be with us much longer. The report from WWF Living Planet Report, highlighted by Professor Georgina Mace, professor of biodiversity and ecosystems, UCL, shows the number of wild vertebrates on Earth have been reduced by 58% in the last 40 years. Andrea Selia, professor of materials and inorganic chemistry, UCL, adding her voice to that of, for example Peter Wadham’s eulogy, A Farewell to Ice. A Report from the Arctic. Seliah’s message is equally as snappy: ‘The ice doesn’t lie’ Mass global warming. Sea ice thinning and melting in an area the size of western Europe in the Antarctic and Arctic. The chances of that happening randomly – a 7 sigma event – one in a hundred billion.  Climate science is even more specific. Taking Charles Kneeling’s 1957 measurement as a baseline for the rise of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, it has passed the 400-parts-per- million mark, reports Tasmin Edwards, lecturer in environmental sciences, Open University. The highest level in three million years. An accident waiting to happen, but it’s not an accident. Goodbye to all that.


the three wise men + one

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I was coming back from the Dropp Inn and I met the three wise men, standing in the lane outside The Tasty Spot, at the fence, broken glass at their feet, munching into a kebab.

‘Whit did you dae with your camels?’ I asked Melchor.

‘I think we’re eating one of them.’ Melchor made a face as he bit into the Pitta bread, the sauce running down his hand. He was the smallest of the wandering trio. They all insisted on wearing the same gear so non-wise men and non-wise women, didn’t discriminate against them: black Crombie coat down to his ankles, Ugg boots and a tartan bunnet, the peak of which keeps the rain from spattering the thick lenses of his specs.

Not that I’m saying the other wise men wear specs. I’m not very good at explaining things. Caspar is a big black man that doesn’t even wear the traditional tartan bunnet, which isn’t very wise, as it always rains in Scotland, especially when it was meant to be dry. But you wouldn’t argue with him, because he’s a heavyweight, who practiced scowling for a living. And when it does come to an argument he turns everything into a Chinese proverb. Nobody wants to argue with a Chinese proverb, not even me. ‘The camels are tied up behind the pub.’ He nodded his head in that direction.

I’m not saying I didn’t believe him, but like the Tau, black can be white and white black and Caspar was a sour faced cunt, so I stretched my legs and peeked around the corner. Sure enough Balthazar was tending the camels, which were tied by gold cords to the back fence of the pub and burdened with enough cheap tat to shame a goat herder. From what I could see the wise men hadn’t been very wise in their purchases, but they were immigrants and you’ve got to expect that kind of thing. There just wasn’t enough jobs for wise men in the East. Nor would it have been politically correct to describe Balthazar as a weedy and baldy Jew, but he didn’t seem to mind. He was just happy to have a job as wise man.

‘How you doin Balthazar?’ I held up my hand in greeting. Balthazar speaks more languages than Google, but he never tried to teach me English, which I appreciated.

‘Yes, apart from losing the star. It is very favourable conditions.’ He slapped one of the camels on the nose with the back of his hand because it was trying to eat his ear. ‘Stop it,’ he added as the camel nuzzled up to him.

That made me think, something I didn’t do very often, there was more going on there as meets the eye. Now I came to think of it Balthazar was always tending the camels while the other two were inside arguing about whose turn it was to buy a round. You’d have thought being wise men they’d have been able to count to two. Melchor had once pulled out a sword that most of us agreed was no’ a bad chib, but he was too late, Caspar caught him with the low blow of a Chinese proverb, and it fell clattering to the ground. Next thing Melchor was up at the bar buying double whiskeys. Makes you think, who was paying for the drinks for all these wise men, but us dafties? I sneaked away with Melchor’s sword to teach him a valuable lesson about leaving things lying about, but Caspar spotted me.

‘There’s none so blind as those that won’t see.’ I speared him with that saying and nipped out the door, before he caught me with a rejoinder.

I caught up with them later at their campsite in what they called The Green Oasis. We just called it Dalmuir Park.  The wise men were impressive tent makers and, even by Dalmuir standards, impressive bevvy artists. They had a couple of mallard ducks turning on a spit, a brazier kept your arse warm and they had all kinds of drinks but seemed to favour a local beverage called Eldorado.

Let me tell you, I don’t usually get involved in wise-man business, but because I was there and because of the Eldorado I thought I was a wise guy too. If someone is daft enough to hand you the microphone, of course, you’re going to sing. So I was hooked into the group that helped decide who the next Messiah was. The star had went missing and it was down to us to find him.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘it’s pretty simple, everyone thinks they’re the Messiah, but why don’t you ask them to prove it.’

‘A new beginning, a guide to all nations, in the form of a new-born child.’ Balthazar was drinking from a bottle of brandy with a poofy name, and he didn’t even blink, when he took a swig. ‘How is that possible?’

‘Easy, the proof is in the pudding. America elected a donkey.’ I winked at Caspar, to get him on board.

‘Whit is this election, thing, you’re speaking about?’ Melchor was a greedy bastard. He’d a duck leg in his hand and was scratching at his teeth with a long fingernail trying to get a bit of prime flesh out of his strong white teeth.

‘An actual physical donkey,’ Balthazar cut in, his hand up in a stop sign, ‘and not as a metaphor?’

‘Aye, I mean no’. Anyway, that’s the old way of doing things.’ I said, ‘the proof is in the pudding again’ and blundered on,   ‘everything is on the internet nowadays.  Put out a call, ask for the Messiah to come in an audition.’ I was winging it now, flung down another swig of Eldorado to help me think. ‘Put it on the telly, ask him to do the usual stuff, water into wine, walking on water, raising a dead person from the dead.’

‘A dead person?’ Caspar raised his eyebrows so high, his hair went on holiday. I waited for him to add something to his statement, because it usual came in a tick-tock kind of rhythm. But what worried me more was he’d stopped drinking. Between me and you, I didn’t mind admitting I think he might have had an alcohol-dependence problem.

Alkies don’t usually bother me, but I decided to do a bit of backtracking. ‘Aye, well, maybe no’ raise an actual physical person. Maybe start with a hamster.’

‘Or a donkey?’ Balthazar had that smug look on his mug.

‘Fuck off.’ The vehemence in my voice surprised me, but him goading me, give me another idea. ‘Well, I’m no’ saying the Messiah should go on the telly and actually kill somebody, but we could maybe wait for an old person to die, stick some tubes down his throat, up his nose, down his ear and all that and when he was deid we could film it and then when’s he’s risen we could slow-mo re-run of all those wee things kicking off. We could have David Attenborough doing the commentary.’

I looked from one wise man to the other. ‘David Attenborough.’ I said it again. They couldn’t help being impressed. ‘Aye, David Attenborough.’ That’s when I had my revelation. ‘We could cut out the middleman. Wire David Attenborough up with all the gadgets. Cause he’s about 95 and can’t have long to go and he can do his own commentary of himself dying. And then we can wheel in the Messiah and he can bring him back to life and David Attenborough could do the commentary of himself coming back to life.’ I took another swig of Eldorado and flung the empty outside the tent.

John Pilger, The Coming War with China.

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The title is deliberately provocative. Does John Pilger mean trade war between the number one and two trading blocks in the world? Because we know that is already happening. President-elect Donald J Trump in his campaign –among other accusations – accused China of raping America and stealing job and the American economy was ‘hurt very badly by China with devaluation.’ The United States and Canada are vital to the Chinese economy. The former dependent on the cheap money China provides to service its debts. Equally, America and the rest of the world are depended on the cheap imports that Chinese labours provide. Think Apple here. Australia’s economy is premised on exporting the raw materials necessary to keep the Chinese economy growing. Britain and America’s  metaphoric economy report cards, for example, are marked as successful if GDP growth has been reaching one-percent, or if it hits the dizzy heights of two-percent GDP growth. China, in contrast, recently hit growth rates exceeding ten-percent of GDP, but this has slowed in recent years to around five-percent and falling to levels associated with more mature economies.

It’s worth quoting Lijia Zhang, a Beijing journalist. Her best-selling book (although obviously not in America) is called Socialism Is Great! She was a child of the Cultural Revolution, when millions of Chinese died of hunger and has lived in the US and Europe. ‘Many Americans imagine that Chinese people live a miserable, repressed life with no freedom whatsoever. The [idea of] the yellow peril has never left them… They have no idea there are some 500 million people being lifted out of poverty, and some would say it’s 600 million.’

China stands now where America stood before the start of the First World War. The world’s axis is shifting East, not only to China, but to countries like India, which between them account for over half the population of the planet. It’s the end of empire for America. And like the British before them if it comes to deploying gunboats as the British did during the opium wars and the Boxer Rebellion, then Pilger notes the American’s are doing the same with over 400 naval bases world-wide, including one a few miles from me in Faslane, but most of them pointing East and costing trillions of dollars. The irony here James Bradley notes:  ‘Warren Delano, the grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the American opium king of China; he was the biggest American opium dealer, second only to the British. Much of the east coast [establishment] of the United States – Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Princeton – was born of drug money.’

America wants to be allowed to be more protectionists that China and China to be more free market than America. The irony here is the Hurun Reports conclusions there are more dollar billionaires in China than anywhere else in the world, including America. But as Eric Li concludes you can be a billionaire in China, but still not be able to buy the Chinese politburo. Pilger’s programme was made before the election of billionaire president Donald J Trump and whose senior positions have been filled so far with a number of billionaires, three Goldman Sachs bankers, and the chief executive of the largest oil company in the world, who has close ties with Russia. It makes George W Bush’s first cabinet of millionaires pauperish.    ‘I believe in American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being,’ said President Barack Obama.  President-elect Trump has already made that exceptionalism clear with his appointment of retired marine general James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as defense secretary. Accused China of interfering with a missing US drone and angering China’s leaders by taking a call from Taiwan’s president – an island that China regards as its sovereign territory.

The difference now is it’s nuclear. Pilger takes us through the stages of and testing of America’s nuclear capability. The Bikini Atoll was repeatedly blown up with the cost estimated in millions of dollars a day. But the real cost was to the islanders used as human guniea pigs in experiments into radioactivity that would have shamed Dr Mengele because the latter only tortured subjects in front of him and not the children’s children of their children as US scientists repeatedly did and continue to do. Poor nations dependence on the US dollar was highlighted by a tale of rich and poor. The Ronald Reagan Ballistic  Missle Defense Site (of course it’s defense) on the Marshall Islands spends billions of tax dollars and year, and millions of dollars a day. The island nearest this paradise ( a swimming pool away) cannot afford to fix the town’s only bus. But perhaps the most chilling moment in Pilger’s documentary was when a former soldier admitted that during the Cuban Missile Crisis a rogue officer ordered those under his command to fire the missiles, and opening the silo doors, which would have wiped out China and the world. For twenty seconds in 1961 the world stood on Armageddon, before the order to stand down was made and the officer quietly escorted away to La-La land.

Pilger does not touch on American’s forgotten war, the Korean war, when Chinese forces near Yalu in early 1950s caught General Douglas MacArthur and his soldiers by surprise (see David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter. America and the Korean War).  America was sick of war, as was the world. The answer was to go nuclear. But even then scientist recognised that would mean the end of the world. The Coldest Winter is, of course, nuclear winter.  Now with ‘smaller’ nuclear weapons and hawks in the cabinet, every war looks winnable, but only by striking first. We’ve given Dr Strangelove Trump the codes to our planet’s future.

Here it’s worth quoting an exchange with Pilger and Professor Ted Postol was scientific adviser to the head of US naval operations. An authority on nuclear weapons. Remember this is pre-Trump and pre the term ‘posttruth’ gaining entry to the Oxford English dictionary: “Everybody here wants to look like they’re tough. See I got to be tough… I’m not afraid of doing anything military, I’m not afraid of threatening; I’m a hairy-chested gorilla. And we have gotten into a state, the United States has gotten into a situation where there’s a lot of sabre-rattling, and it’s really being orchestrated from the top.”


I said, “This seems incredibly dangerous.”


“That is an understatement,” he replied.

A Gift at Christmas.

Years ago, when Christmas was still Christmas, and I was just a wee boy stuck in my room in the attic because of the asthma, and everything else that was wrong with me, I had many visitors during the day that brought me meals and drinks and warm loving hand that took my temperature and tucked me into bed, but only one visitor at night that made my head spin.

Junior Angel Muddleduck was not your more conventional little fellow, inordinately proud of the extra inch in height that allowed him to lord it over other junior angels and for rhyme, he claimed to wear a battered crown. He wore coat and hat, vernal green in a way no longer seen, and had shamrocks in his sleeves and in every wrinkle of his face a twinkle that put you at ease. But I was scared. ‘Because I see you, does that mean I’m going to die?’

He laughed so much it took his body for a spin, and when he recovered I sat up in bed and began to grin. ‘Of course you are going to die. Dying is changing and changing is dying, but you’ve got to ask the reason why. Salvation is health and health salvation and into creation we pour our little equation. Winter strikes and growing things die, but in its beauty we see and feel the reason why.’

After that Muddleduck often came to my room, but I could never tell when or why.

‘Muddleduck,’ I said, ‘don’t wake me up like that.’ He stood beside my sickbed, tapping me on the forehead with the bowl of his clay pipe, until my eyes opened. The smell of tobacco should have made me choke and burn, but it went deeper, a scent that conjured up pictures of tramping through pine forests and somehow had me breathing easier.

‘How else would I waken you?’ he asked.

I hitched the blankets around my ears, frost crept inside the open window and nipped at my rosy nose, turned over in my bed and tried to ignore cold feet and the plumes of breath forming with each breathe.

‘Don’t be going back to sleep on me,’ he warned. ‘Have you not heard the saying that you never turn your back on an angel, because it can put you at the wrong angle, unable to see, the way things are meant to be? You know if we go anywhere you have always got somewhere to go and the night has brought its own light and snow to play. Get up and get your feet on the day, before it runs away.’

I sat up, pushed and pulled my way out the blankets and tight hospital corner and swung my feet out of bed. Yawning, with a hand over my mouth, mumbled: ‘None of your tomfoolery.’

He sucked on his pipe. ‘Good lad. Your need is that creed of discontent, waiting for the right event, to complain, but don’t worry, we’ll make a pixie out of you yet. The trouble with humans is yes means no and no yes and anything in between is anyone’s best guess.’

I found the only way to get on with Muddleduck was to agree with everything he said. There was always a reason for him not having a reason. The last time we sneaked out, for example, we’d found a diamond so big Muddleduck had to borrow a wheelbarrow from Mr Jenkin’s garden at 20 Overtoun and bring it back here. The diamond’s light, even at night, had left me blind the next day, and those that came, I heard them saying, they feared the worst.  I tossed and turned and couldn’t settle until night time when he came back again.

For once I was waiting for him to appear. When I smelled wood smoke and a voice ringing and singing in the distance I knew he was sure to follow. ‘What did you do with the diamond?’ I asked when he appeared in my room.

‘You don’t leave a diamond of that size just lying around,’ he snorted, banging his shillelagh on the floor to give his words that extra resonance. ‘Sure, I buried it for safekeeping. Its legacy is intact and that’s a fact, as safe as safe can be, even from me.’

Junior angels are kings of burying and hiding things. They could hide your sock in your shoe and you’d never be able to find it. The problem was they wouldn’t be able to find it either. There was so much going on in their head they’d stumble on something else instead, such as a spider’s web that catches the sun. I got down on my knees and felt underneath my bed for my socks and shoes.

‘A sock’s missing!’ I looked up at his shamefaced grin.

‘Hell’s bells, but you know now what you did not before. Even if you find it you’d be daft to think its twin will not find a way to escape and walk away. C’mon, we best get crackin’’.

‘Where are we off to?’

I pulled open the wardrobe and took a thick wool pullover off the top shelf and pulled it over my striped pyjama top. The brown duffle coat was a present that smelled newish, leather straps on bone toggles not buttered by touch.  I twisted them into place and buttoned them up to my throat and pulled the hood up. I didn’t want any clipe of a neighbour telling my mum that they’d seen me and an unknown heavenly body, sneaking out and night, sliding from the window of my room down a rainbow into the back garden.

Sammy the hedgehog was waiting to meet us his little feet stuck in the snow. ‘Whit kept you so long? I’ve been waiting four turns of the moon, and if you didnae come soon, I’d be a frozen turd. Hurry up, or we’ll be late for being early.’

Hedgehogs are like that, prickly, never contended. That was why he was best friends with Muddleduck, because he was never prickly and always contented.

‘If we hurry, we’ll get there before it’s gone.’ Sammy ran through the snow, leaving little sharp indents, and squeezed under a hole in the garden wall.

I found it hard to keep up. Snow took away all the sharp edges, but I slipped and slid in softness to find my feet in the muffled silence of a world being put to white. Angels walk faster than they run and can’t run without singing and prancing. But the moon, hung low, was full in the sky and I followed his tracks and listened to his off-key, poetic revelries of all that was lost and won. Muddleduck was sucking on his pipe, waiting for me by the park gates. Sammy tracks where on the other side and led towards the swing park and duck pond.

I slipped in front of him and he grabbed onto the arm of my duffle coat steadying me. I studied the thick chain with a coating of snow and large padlock on the park gates. ‘How are we going to get in?’

‘No bother. You’ll need to climb.’

‘But it’s awful high,’ I whined.

‘How do you know until you’re up there to say so.’ Muddleduck stuck his pipe at a jaunty angle in his mouth and pushed his back against the bars. His fingers were knit together into a cat’s cradle. It was obvious that he intended to boost me up and over that way. Angels are incredibly strong, but even using his body as a ladder and standing on his shoulders, I wasn’t. I couldn’t reach the horizontal of the top bar and was flapping and struggling to get a grip, almost toppling.

‘Stand on my head and take a breather and I’ll push with my heels and you’ll be higher than a squeal.’

I put a foot daintily onto his head. ‘But won’t it hurt?’

He laughed so much his pipe fell from and his mouth.  I fell, tumbling down to the ground, thick curls of snow blanketing my fall. ‘I could have been badly injured!’

‘Humans are always standing on angels’ heads. That’s why they’re there and that why they’re square.  Little man’s, big fall, does not add up to much at all.’  He jammed his pipe back in his mouth. Somehow it had become lit again and he giggled as he presented me with the cat’s cradle and his body as a climbing frame again.

Somehow I scrambled up and over the fence, landing on the other side. I looked through the railings at Muddleduck, wondering how without my help, he’d be able to climb up and over the fence. He shook the handle of the fence and the lock fell off, he unhooked the chain and stepped inside.

‘Why did you make me climb the fence?’

He marched away towards the playpark, falling Sammy’s tracks. I followed behind. An angel is always a step ahead of you. ‘You asked me to help get you over an incline, which I did and that way was fine, but now you’re moping and in a mood. Fine. Some people never offer a crumb of praise to you and that’s understood.’

Woodland creatures filled all the trees and bushes. Fairy folk made a path for us as we made our way through them. Between the slide, the roundabout and the swings was the wheelbarrow borrowed from number 20, with the diamond uncovered.

‘Beautiful, isn’t it,’ Muddleduck suggested. ‘Watch and see moonlight will climb inside and play and all creatures begin to sway. All fear will fall. All that is not right will be revealed in plain sight. For a moment or two all of heaven will sing to you. A flash and your world will turn to ash. That shaking will be your making. Ever after you will loss the mundane, the world will be your gain.’

The diamond began to glow and grow, green and pink, became red, and blue a violet instead. I was thrown backwards when the white light exploded into a million stars of the night, fragments piercing my eyes.

When I woke up in bed Muddleduck was away. I got out of bed and looked out the window, I heard mum coming up the stairs. Outside snow drifted and curled lazily down, bringing clouds to the ground. A world of white, quiet and contented initself. I saw Sammy the hedgehog poking his head out from underneath the garden hut next door. ‘You should be sleeping,’ I said to Sammy, a word of warning, even though he wouldn’t be able to hear me, because he was too far away, but Muddleduck had told me sometimes it’s best to just speak your mind.

When mum opened the door I saw the fear in her eyes. She was across beside me in a flash, palm of her hand against my forehead, running her hands up and down my arms and legs. ‘You should be in bed.’

‘Why?’ There was no longer a hitch in my voice, where the asthma had been. ‘I’m no’ tired. And I’m starving. Whit’s for breakfast?’

Mum got on her knees, flung her arms around me and hugged me so tight, rocking back and forward with her hand behind my neck it hurt. She started greeting and slobbering all over me. She let me go for a second and kissed both cheeks, with a snuffling sound.

‘It’s all right mum, I’m no’ that hungry. I’ll no’ eat everything.’

‘I thought I was going to lose you.’ Mum squeezed my warm hand.

‘How where was I goin’?’ I asked.

She didn’t answer, but I wasn’t that bothered. I thought I could ask Muddleduck later on, but I never saw him again except in flashes, when I smelled wood smoke and I saw evidence of his sneaking about.






Elana Ferrante (1999 [2016]) Troubling Love.

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What attracted me to Elana Ferrante’s short, debut, novel was her refusal to publicise her books and the belief that a –good – book would find an audience. It seems counterintuitive, but the purity of such belief is hard to argue with, even though if I hadn’t read about her in the Observer Review, I wouldn’t know who she was and would not have read or written this review of her book.  Twenty or thirty films in English are being sold to us every week, with millions spent on advertising, sometimes as much as a third of the budget and, the poor relations, tens of thousands of books also waiting to be read and demanding our attention. But Ferrante has talked the talk and walked the walk, so you can’t argue with success. I admit a bit of Catholic guilt here, wishing it was me and not her, but hey, I’m no saint, and Troubling Love might simply be the realisation your book is no damn good.

A death is always a good starting point for a novel especially a mother’s death.

‘I had only an impression of losing altitude, like an aged Alice in pursuit of the White Rabbit…’ in pursuit of her mother, who has apparently committed suicide, her father, who was separated from her mother and her mother’s apparent lover – from the past – the dapper old man, Caserta, whom forty years before, when Deila had been five, had told her father she’d seen them having sex in the basement of Caserta’s father’s shop in Naples, which led to a Vesuvius eruption of recrimination and violence that haunted the little girl her whole life.  The mystery of who we are and what we have become. A  Bildungsroman in reverse gear.

‘I remember everything, or almost everything. Only the words are missing.’ Memory is a tricky beast, qualified by time and experience, ‘I remembered but I cannot tell myself’.

The question then becomes what is the unreliable narrator hiding from herself and the reader? A journey into the past becomes a journey into the present and the trouble with love is it is fickle and often unfaithful, welling up, but unwilling to be held.

Naples is not what it was, but Delia is native, surefooted in following her mother’s footsteps prior to her suicide, and unravelling her apparently strange behaviour in a denouement that arranges the whys to become the guilty secret of ‘I’.



Book of the year. Peter Wadhams (2016) A Farewell to Ice. A Report From the Arctic.

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A writer has one imperative, or simple rule – read. Often I have little understanding of what I’m reading. Usually there is a but here. I do not understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but…kinda like a meme from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding: ‘We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started.’ Or Rumi’s parable of the elephant and six blind men. One holding onto a leg, or trunk, an ear, and explaining to the other what in the world stands true. Wadhams’ A Farewell to Ice is a familiar tale and it is distilled into a line of poetry he quotes from mystic Francis Thompson: ‘Thou canst not stir a flower/Without troubling of a star’.

Like Jonah preaching to the Ninevites and warning them they have forty days, Wadhams is telling us much the same thing about the accelerating effects of Arctic Feedbacks on our once blue planet. He is not giving us forty days, but perhaps forty years and we’re pretty much gubbed, sackcloth and ashes.

The trigger is fossil fuels, measured in parts per million, and what he is saying is mankind has already fired the bullet. I employ a simple rule of thumb, when a pessimist is also a realist, usually he’s right. Think of Thomas Piketty Capital documenting how after the end of the 1970s money flowed at increasing rates from the poor to the rich in the developed world. Like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, I don’t need to know all the details. I can believe it is true, or not, which is an act of faith. But Piketty as an economist showed us how he got to where he is and said, very simply, prove me wrong. Wadham does the same. Here is my data and here is my message: ‘We must not only go to zero emissions, we must actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere’ (italics around text are Wadhams’). He suggests a real danger with hundreds of millions starving, and also  the possibility of nuclear war.

What Wadhams didn’t factor in was the Donald Trump factor and the appointment of former General ‘Mad Dog’ Maddis as United States Defense Secretary, or the President Elect’s provocation with China over the sovereignty of South Korea even before he takes office. We live in interesting times.

But Wadhams is on more familiar ground with his outing of ‘The Black Tide of Denial’ and how fossil fuel interests have taken a hatchet to budgets and attempted to discredit those that support the claims of global warming in the same way that Communists were thought to be under every bed in the McCarthy era. Wadham gives several examples of attacks on himself and other scientists, but perhaps the best example comes from Jamie Doward, The Observer, ‘How the trolling of a tech pioneer reveals a new assault on climate science’: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/04/elon-musk-trolling-us-conservatives-green-tech

Wadham could not have predicted prior to publication this year that the trolls that produced such propaganda would not only try to influence decisions about climate change, but would be appointed as judges of what was right and wrong. All that ‘green crap’ referred to by David Cameron is dead in the water. An analogy would be fifty years ago appointing directors of the big five tobacco companies as independent advisors of whether there was a link between smoking and cancer. The difference now, of course, is we’ve not got fifty years. The enemy is at the door now. And our blue planet does not care what you believe, or whether you believe it is right or wrong. The earth will keep turning. One million years is not the equivalent of a minute in the day. Pseudo-science and greed has given voice and grown arms and legs. Perhaps reason will meet sense, but I doubt it. We are too far down the path. As above, so below and all parts are interconnected.

Listen to a quote in Wadhams from a voice of reason, scientist and Professor Robert P. Abele.

As we inflict violence on the planet to the point of mortality, we inflict violence on ourselves, to the point of our mortality. A dead planet will result in dead people, and a people and/or its leaders who are psychologically and/or ethically desensitized to the consequences of this Terran violence have no chance of long-term survival.

Read this book. Share this post. Ask a simple question: what can we do?

the end of the world as we know it – but I feel fine.

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The Second World War is a fading memory and America rules the world. Bill Bryson (2007) The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid: Travels Through My Childhood shows how it was won and it’s not on the front cover with a kid with a hard plastic hat painted silver, aerial attached, Pegasus’s ears pasted on, his face screwed up as he points a plastic ray gun of brightest gold, while behind him sparks fly and a surreal red and white star explodes, in an understated way,  KAZAMS. Rather, it’s low key, black and white picture, double spread, to raise a chuckle, husband in his shirt and tie holding a metal shopping trolley, filled to the gunnels with food. His wife standing beside him, almost touching, holding hands, hat on her head, swing of handbag on the other arm, smiling at the camera to beat the world. Their son stands in front and to the right of them and the trolley, hands tucked inside the pockets of his thick jacket, cap on his head, smiling self-consciously. Behind the nuclear family food is stacked to the ceiling to show what the average American eats in a year. You bet they won the war, not only is their cup overflowing, everything else is too. Racks of meat and bird, eggs, milk, potatoes, veg, exotic bananas and every kind of fruit from the backyard of the world. To the victor the spoils.

Communist China is no longer communist. Chairman Mao his long walk and great leap forward forgotten. Loop past  The Cultural Revolution to President of The People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping. Substitute a Chinese man and his wife in the picture. The One Child Maoist policies fallout dictates it’s likely to be a son standing in front of them. Racks of meat and bird, eggs, milk, potatoes, veg, exotic bananas and every kind of fruit from the backyard of the world. To the victor the spoils.

One nation takes plenty for granted. One nation plans for famine, remembers tens of millions starving when children banged pots and beat birds from the trees with sticks in the mistaken belief they ate crops. I recently went to a talk, and appropriately old-fashioned slide show (no fancy PowerPoint production) in the basement of Clydebank library given by Callum Christie. Christie in his book Goodbye Colonialism Farewell Feudalism, takes us back to a different century, Barotseland in (now Zambia) a Protectorate of the British Empire where he worked as a District Officer from 1959-1962.  British film maker Amma Asante covers similar ground and is in the same time frame: A United Kingdom a romance between an African prince studying law and meeting a white woman in London, who he plans to marry, before returning to Bechanuland (which became Botswana) as king. My question to Christie was along the familiar lines of was colonialism a good thing? The answer, as you’d expect, differed from the George Orwell of Burmese Days. A British Protectorate was a good thing because it protected the people of Northern Rhodesia from the Arab traders and raids from other tribes that sold black people into slavery. Wrong century, but moving swiftly on. I asked about neo-colonialism and possible Chinese investment in Zambia. Copper mines in Zambia are one reason why Chinese investment helped pave the main roads through the country. But I’d guess the other reason is food, from a ‘Land of flooded valleys and rivers’.  Africans may starve as millions did during the Irish potato famine of 1845 onwards, but food was still exported to the British paymasters. When the rains fail, Chinese still need to feed an estimated third of the world’s population of almost two billion.

You can see some of this posturing with Putin’s Russia sending submarines to plant flags on the seabed to claim disputed coastal water and the potential riches of fossil fuels and seafood for his nation. China is building atolls off its coast. The future is unknowable and we need to think and plan for it now.

There is no Second World War bomber droning overhead or the cry of ‘gas boys, gas,’ shouted from First World War trenches and no quick fix to the bleaching of coral, or the end of ice and dying of our kindred species. Another movie, another white, American hero, Tom Hanks as Sully in Clint Eastwood’s film. ‘This is the captain, brace for impact.’

Sullenberger had less than three minutes to decide where to land a plane that had no engines. Test pilots appointed by the Civil Aviation Authority in simulated flights were able to steady the falling plane and land it at La Guardia airport and not in the Hudson River.

Peter Wadhams in A Farewell to Ice accuses The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the same dishonourable tactics, running simulations until they get a palatable approximation of the truth. We’re all going to get back to La Guardia and brush our clothes down and step off that falling plane. Our blue planet keeps turning. I’m not going to be able to change things. But as a writer I’m obliged to read the small print and say this is the way it’s going to be.