Monday, May 28, 2012

Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan

Mo Yan is a pen name. It means 'Don't Speak' and the writer Guan Moye adopted it because he has a tendency to talk too much. This comes, he says, from one of his two muses: loneliness (the other is hunger).

Mo Yan is an unusual Chinese writer to reach an audience in the West. Most of the others I have come across have been emigrants telling of the privations of the life they have escaped. Mo Yan, in contrast, lives it still. When this collection was published in 2001 he was still a staff officer in the People's Liberation Army. Perhaps he still is. He was born a peasant and only dreamed of becoming of a writer when a college student, who had been labelled a rightist, was sent to work alongside him in a field. The intellectual writers I have come across viewed this rural re-education as a form of endurance (and I think I would too), but for Mo Yan I guess it was the only life he knew.

Later he joined the army and escaped this hard life of toil too. He had little formal education and so knows nothing about literary theories, relying on just his experiences in order to write. The result is fresh, unusual and highly acclaimed by people like Amy Tan and Kenzaburo Oe.

In his collection, Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh, there is great variety of form and theme: from the funny and slightly bawdy ('Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh' - which deals with the money-making scheme of a man made redundant one month before he is due to retire), to the atmospheric and sad ('Man and Beast' - which deals with a soldier hiding in a cave during the second world war, and is really about bereavement). 'Soaring' is an impressive example of magical realism in which a reluctant bride takes flight; while 'Iron Child', which is also fantastical, seems to be more allegorical and is set during the Great Leap Forward. 'The Cure' is also set in the mid twentieth century and gives a flavour of the way traditional beliefs still held sway alongside local politics, while in 'Shen Garden' something positive comes from the Cultural Revolution. 'Abandoned Child' is more modern, and is a thoughtful study on the reality of the Chinese One Child policy.

It is a strong collection giving an unusual insight into recent China with humour giving a satisfying counterbalance to the surreal and the tragic.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey

Yesterday, I finally finished The Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebrey. I'd made 40 pages of notes on my computer. I need to make notes when I read books like this to ensure that I retain at least some of it, but it does make my reading much slower. I have been reading this book on and off for months, but it was worth it. It is an excellent book, and one I'm really glad I've read.

It is clearly written, understandable and with some superb pictures which really add to the experience. I also admired the author's stance. To me it seemed admirably neutral. For instance, having read several accounts of life in twentieth century China, I found myself looking at the whole sad history from yet another viewpoint. Mao, for instance, was not demonised, neither was he hugely admired, but he and his actions were examined, and therefore, to some extent, explained.

The epilogue was particularly fine. It compared the Western and Eastern views of civilisation. In the West, the metaphor for a civilisation is the life of a man: a tumultuous youth followed by the steadiness of maturity and then a decline in old age. One rises to supremacy then declines and another takes its place, and only one may reign supreme at a time. In the East, however, the metaphor is a line of descent. There is 'No sense that young civilisations supplant old ones - rather it passes through a series of yin-yang-like reversals of direction from excessive disorder to excessive order and back again.'

I found this idea very interesting, because it reminded me again of Joseph Needham's questions: why did Chinese science decline after such an exciting start in (Western) pre-Renaissance times? Patricia Buckley Ebrey puts this in a slightly different way. She says that until 1700 ideas tended to go from east to west, but by the nineteenth century China was outclassed, and suggests this may have been due to the more ordered society of the Qing dynasty 1644-1900.

The Ming Dynasty that came before it was a more open society and as more disordered, but also creative. Under the Manchu of the Qing Dynasty there was more order, but also more repressive: homosexuality and noel writing were deemed to be subversive and the ideal woman were sensitive, delicate and 'pure'. For instance, there was a rise in the number of 'celibate widows' who refused to marry another even though they had never met the man to whom they had been betrothed (the man in question having died before marriage).

So maybe the decline in creativity in China was due not to the flow of all the great young minds to the civil service as I have read elsewhere (this, after all, had been in place long before 1700) or that lack of wars between kingdoms (the Qing emperor's seemed to do a lot of that too) but just the repression and discouragement of free-thinking.

I'm thinking of this as I begin to read Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan. Mo Yan grew up in the Great Leap Forward. A time when the intellectuals had been purged following the 1956 'Let a hundred flowers bloom' and the subsequent anti-Rightist campaign. Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans said that such conditions are bad for creativity, and she had to write her book in her head during her time in forced labour. But Mo Yan says, in his excellent preface, that he is writer because of this period of loneliness and hunger. Maybe these apparently conflicting viewpoints are actually different facets of the same process.

It is as though, in this instance, the repression of hard labour in the countryside has led to an intellectual disorder: a time when ideas can fly like Poincaré's hooked atoms around the room of the mind. But unfortunately, there is no opportunity to record the flashes of insight that occur in the toil and deprivation, but at least they happen, and with luck can be recalled later. There would also be little opportunity to share ideas or learn, just this time to reflect. Luckily, for these two authors, and their readers, it turned out to be enough.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

An Interview with Padgett Powell

Today, having been suitably impressed by The Interrogative Mood and You & I, I bought Padgett Powell's The Imperative Mood for my Kindle (at £0.89 it was a bargain!).

Since The Interrogative Mood was a book composed of questions, and the Imperative Mood deals mainly with commands, it gives me a certain amount of smug pleasure to celebrate this epublication with some of Padgett Powell's answers to my questions about his book You and I (now shortlisted for the James Tait Black award).


Padgett Powell is a writer. The New York Times calls him 'a master of voice, a generator of absolutely particular, original, hilarious human sounds'. His first novel Edisto (to be published soon in the UK) was nominated for the US National Book Awards and hailed by Walker Percy as 'truly remarkable'. He teaches writing at the University of Florida.


Questions about You and I

C.D: How much of this book is fiction? Did you, for instance, ever know anyone like Kathy Porter?
P.P: Like any book that’s any good, there are nuggets of the Real within a larger skein of the Not. Kathy Porter happens to be a real adventure; that may even have been her actual name, and I was her little Tarzan. My father had uncles named Cuthbert and Hansford and Jake, but not Studio, and the name was Padgett not Becalmed.

C.D: If you were to equate this book with a form of 2D art, what would it be?
P.P: Well, I guess it would be that early Atari video game Pong or whatever it was called. The little tennis court and the to-and-fro square(?) ball . . .

C.D: Vocabulary seems to me to be an important feature in this book; do you often make up words? Are you particularly proud or pleased with any words you have made up?
P.P: I make up words unwittingly more often that deliberately, out of ignorance--words that I think are words. The deliberate words I have made up are grinnace (embarrassed frozen grin), to demure (to be demure), and gelid to mean not frozen but gelled with cold, like Jell-O. These are now in dictionaries.

C.D: How do you write? Do you plan?
P.P: This I can answer: no plan beyond trying to get the next right word.

C.D: Do you have any literary idols? Do you feel any literary figure has been a particular influence on your work?
P.P: I mimicked Norman Mailer as a late teen. I then saw Faulkner and O’Connor and Tennessee Williams and Walker Percy and formed my idea of fiction. Then I saw Donald Barthelme and another idea of fiction. I have drifted that way.

C.D: Do you find being a teacher of writing influences how you write? If so, how?
P.P: I suspect that not how one writes but what one writes about is the truer function of presuming to teach that which cannot be taught. The Interrogative Mood, for example, would not exist were it not for some annoying emails I received in the schoolhouse. “Is it time for our esteemed director to have a chat with the provost about the autonomy of the program?”

C.D: Would you agree (as you are described in Wikipedia) that you are a writer in the Southern Literary tradition? How would you say living and working in Florida has influenced your work?
P.P: I am in the SLT with the distinction that I like to pretend I make fun of it part of the time. Florida is on the periphery of the “deep south,” a selvage of folk not imminently concerned with the Lost Cause. We are hundreds of miles from where Sherman marched and burned. We are far enough away that we can admit he was a good general. But make no mistake: the South contains the first whipped Americans. It would not be until Vietnam that the rest of America got caught up. Now, with Iraq and Afghanistan, we all comprehend whipped. And we volunteered, as most of the whipped do.

General Questions

C.D: Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)
P.P: Snails should be looked at with an eye toward sexual lubrifiant.

C.D: What is your proudest moment?
P.P: I am a coward, and realizing that is probably the moment in which I might take some pride. But the moment, properly speaking, is a lifetime of inching unto the truth. It is only within the last five years that I have been able to formulate and codify my cowardice.

C.D: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
P.P: See below.

C.D: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
P.P: I told Teresa Austin that I wanted Patsy Bailey, not her, Teresa, as my girlfriend, in the sixth grade. Teresa had been my girlfriend from the fifth grade, and I liked her. Patsy was hot-looking and I did not even know her, let alone like her. The look on Teresa’s face, and her walking away, was the saddest thing I have seen. She had rampant freckles. I miss her to this day. I am 60 and 23/365 years old.

C.D: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
P.P: See above.

C.D: What is happiness?
P.P: Sticking with Teresa.

C.D: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
P.P: Put on pants, make coffee, marvel at how tired I am.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Pathlight No 1 2012

The early morning is a good time to read a short story. I have been dipping into the stories in Pathlight, the first volume of a Chinese literary magazine I was given at the London Book Fair. It is filled with contemporary Chinese short stories and poetry: a good way to get a feel of the cultural life of a place, perhaps.

The first I read was 'A Sheep Released to Life' written by the Tibetan writer Tsering Norbu. It was about a elderly widower who takes care of a sheep, releasing her back to life, because he believes that she is the reincarnation of his wife. They spend their days making pilgrimages and paying their respects at temples so that they both will have a better life in their next reincarnation. It is a quiet tale, oddly comforting to read.

This morning I read 'Pregnant Women with Cow' by Tie Ning. This is simply about ... a pregnant woman taking a walk with a pregnant cow. Nothing much happens except the woman, who is illiterate, sketches the writing she sees on an old Qing-age stele so that a literate elder in her village can interpret them for her. The writing is skilful and absorbing and gives a sense of how it must be to live in an isolated rural part of modern China.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Rare Earth by Paul Mason.

Paul Mason, an economics correspondent with BBC Newsnight, has presented some very interesting reports on China. In Rare Earth he obviously uses a lot of this material to give a grimy picture of a China in 2009 where 'the air was not cooled by the river's flow. It was baked by blast furnaces and hung heavy with the odour of coal and gasoline, the odour of 9.9% GDP growth'.

It is written in an accessible style with several explicit sex scenes, a lot of double-dealing and action-adventure, and even a few ghosts (of the political kind). Some parts I found hilarious, some parts interesting and there was some insight into an aspect of Chinese life I'd only slightly glimpsed when I was over there: 'whole swathes of China are ungoverned: ruled by mobsters and corrupt officials just like under the Qing'.

This becomes even more interesting towards the end when an old general called Gao considers how the world has changed since the 'unfortunate events' of 1989 - not just in China but everywhere. 'What kind of people have come to the fore in the Eastern Europe since 1989? And the West for that matter?'

The protagonist Brough, who is a western journalist, provides his opinion, which the general takes further.  The general proposes that Brough sees 'sociological types in China that are completely recognisable' and then 'maybe there is very little difference between here and there' and then, more chillingly, 'And maybe what has happened now is not just some 20-year reactionary period. Are you prepared to consider the possibility that 1989 began the era of the... individualist, the egoist, the businessman, the sexual predator, the human-being perpetually separated from society by the self-selected soundtrack on their iPod?'

It is a thought-provoking viewpoint - and worth reading the book for this alone.

I bought this book on Kindle.

Feeding my T.C. Boyle addiction

Yesterday, I added another volume to my T.C. Boyle collection (the one at the bottom - the American Viking edition of 'Stories'). I have also got the Faber edition - not realising when I bought it that this English version contains only three volumes of his short stories whereas the American one has four (as well as others-not-before-published) so I decided to get this as well.

I have also two of his other books - 'The Women' which I read on my kindle, and 'Wild Child' on audio and am now thinking that I shall, maybe, buy these in paper too eventually (after I have bought his other books) to complete my collection.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Novel Progress

Today I remapped the plan of my book shading in the parts I've finished. It's a rough method, but it looks like I've done about two-thirds (around 105 000 words so far) ... in around three years.

Monday, May 14, 2012


Yes, I'm revisiting China again (in books)...

Today I read this: in the mid fifth century, a southern official offered 1,000 bolts of cloth to redeem his sexagenarian wife who had been captured and made into a palace slave.

(From Cambridge Illustrated History of China by Patricia Buckley Ebury).

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Lost Art of Losing by Gregory Norminton

A couple of weeks ago I went to Gregory Norminton's book launch in Manchester.

He'd said it was a little book, and so it is, in terms of size. But then a book is best not assessed in terms of physical dimensions but in terms of ideas

and so, in some ways, The Lost Art of Losing is huge.

It is a book of aphorisms, and each time I dip in I find something witty and wise.

Just now I found 'A child's tantrum is infuriating because we cannot join in', and yesterday 'The past is a work in progress'.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Greece's 'Odious' Debt by Jason Manolopoulos

The first time we tried to get into the Kerameikos Museum in October 2010 we found this:

Greece was in the middle of a general strike, and just recently the country has been in the news again with their elections rejecting the previous government's austerity measures. I was interested in learning a little of the background to all this unrest, and so I of course resorted to a book, namely this one:

Greece's 'Odious' Debt by Jason Manolopoulos. Mr Manolopoulos is the co-founder of the emerging markets hedge fund, Dromeus Capital, so he knows a few things about economics. It is a well-written book, with just the right degree of well-chosen humour. It was written in simple enough terms for the layman to understand for most of the book, although I did feel I was out of my depth towards the end of the book in chapter 9 when the vocabulary defeated me, but I feel it didn't stop me learning a great deal from this book.

The book was published in 2011. In the preface Manolopoulos says that by that time Greece had been allowed to borrow in excess of $300 billion, despite 'an unreformed economy, overreliance on mid-tech industries, a chronically inefficient and corrupt public sector and an unreformed political infrastructure with immunity for politician guilty of financial crimes.'

An unreformed economy, I believe, is one that has not been fully opened up to market forces. Economic reform is the lifting of state monopolies and controls, the widespread privatisation of industries,
and the support of entrepreneurs. China has reformed their economy since 1978 and this has led to increased wealth. In the reformed economy there are opportunities for the ruthless to become oligarchs and become fantastically wealthy; in the unreformed economy there are similar opportunities for politicians and civil servants - this time through the control of state funds.

The ‘Odious’ debt of the title comes from legal theory of the 1920s. It refers to national debt incurred by a government for purposes that do not serve the best interests of the nation; they are held to be personal debts of the representative regime that incurred them and not of the country’s population - and such debt should not be enforceable.

However Manolopoulos paints a picture of a society that is openly corrupt from the government downwards: there are even words for it fakelaki is a colloquial term for a bribe to speed up service, and miza is the term for an introduction fee for procurement. In chapter 5 ('The Looting of Greece') he starts by giving some shocking figures: there are 321 dead individuals aged over 100 receiving a pension; 30 full-time civil servants staff an office devoted to a lake that no longer exists; 324 householders admit to owning a swimming pool in northern Athens for tax purposes, although satellite photography reveals 16,974. Instead of wealth being created by industry, and some of this wealth being used to support political movements, the money flowed from the politicians to their favoured clients. There are closed shops, politicians come only from certain families, state employees have little to do and their jobs are safe, their salaries large and they retire early, there is widespread nepotism and cronyism...and the police uniforms cost more than Armani!

He gives historical reasons for this corruption: Greeks have a sense of entitlement, he says. They gave the world its culture, philosophy, science, democracy and education and so feel they are owed something back; during the second world war they lost the largest proportion of people of any occupied country and according to Churchill were instrumental in securing victory; and since that war they have had to endure a civil war and then a coup d'etat. But perhaps the greatest sense comes from the rule of the Ottoman empire which lasted over three centuries. During this time it became a point of honour to avoid paying taxes which would only benefit the alien overlords, and the habit seems to have stuck.

This corruption also infected the way Greece presented itself to the rest of the world, so that when Greece declared it had met criteria (budget deficit below 3% of GDP) in order to join the euro in 2001 it did so partly through by fudging figures and exploiting loopholes - this was an open secret and it served the European Community's purposes at the time not to go and check. The idea was that Greece's economy would gradually converge with the rest - and at that start things looked good.

The three main 'industries' of Greece are tourism, shipping and agriculture, and when Greece adopted the single European currency in 2001 these, by complete fluke, were about to experience a boom. The rise of al qaeda meant that Greece was favoured as a tourist destination over nearby Islamic countries, the demand for shipping increased due to China's economic boom, and agriculture benefitted from EU subsidies. People in Greece felt rich, there was a lot of money available to those with the right connections, but instead of investing in the future by building technical colleges, research institutes and schools (as India and China did) these newly wealthy civil servants and politicians invested it in their lifestyles. They bought houses, second homes, boats and expensive cars from Germany, and they also bought arms. Greece has the highest owner occupancy rate in all of Europe. In 2010 there were €8 billion outstanding car loans (3.5% of the GDP). But Greece was living beyond its means. Despite the apparent affluence, Greece was a country in debt, and this debt was becoming steadily worse.

Money continued to be available post boom. Because Greece had the euro it was considered to be rather more developed than it actually was and the politicians were consequently able to borrow more money on easy, low interest terms. There was, Manolopoulos says, a ‘kick the can down the road’ mentality; in which politicians buy enough favours for short term and gamble that the day of reckoning falls on someone else’s watch. This applied not just in Greece, of course, and, I would say applies not just to economics but to potentially more important things such as the future of the planet and long term health and social care.

The global recession of 2008 took time to hit, but by 2009 Greece was in crisis. In late 2009 the PASOK government announced that previous statistics had seriously understated public borrowing requirements. It doubled to 13% of GDP.

Membership of the euro had made Greece a relatively expensive tourist destination, and sufficient money hadn't been spent on upgrading the facilities during the boom; shipping was hit by the decreased demand and the was a reduction in agricultural subsidies from the EU as poorer Eastern European countries had joined.

The usual step in such circumstances would be to devalue the currency, but Greece would only be able to do this if it left the euro, so to prevent them doing this there have been a series of 'bail outs' from the rest of the EC on condition of the Greek government imposing austerity measures on the people. The reaction of the Greek population is to respond with strikes and other unrest - hence the reason the Kerameikos was closed that day in 2010. Manolopoulos contrasts this response with that of the Irish, who are undergoing similar hardships with little more than a murmur. The reason, he says, is that the Greek have had a coup d'etat within living memory which means that the police are not viewed with the same neutrality, and furthermore there is a general resentment of the well-known wealth and corruption of those in power - compared with the rest of society who are poor and being asked to give up even more.

Last Sunday, the politicians that had accepted the 'bail outs' and the accompanying austerity measures, were voted out, and so many other parties were voted in with an evenly distributed number of votes that there is no majority to run the country. The consensus seems to be that Greece will now leave the euro, and the great European experiment to build a nation equal to the United States of America will start to crumble.Manolopoulos would no doubt think this a shame. The euro, he said, was a good thing - it was just done badly.

It is a very good and thought-provoking book, but I suppose the main assertion of the book remains open. Is Greece's debt really 'odious'? In fact, how much is any country's debt 'odious'? If a country is a democracy then perhaps its debt can't be 'odious' because it has been procured by a government which represents the people. If that government is corrupt then is that corruption just as much a representation of the people? But maybe none of us truly live in a democracy - not in the Ancient Greek sense. For that we would all have the chance to vote on every issue, especially on something as important and fundamental as the European Community and the adoption of the euro. We would all have been herded up to our local pnyxs and given the chances to have our voices heard - on that and everything that mattered. Although, thinking about it, I think I would find that fairly odious too.

I bought the book (in Sterling- heh).

Kerameikos 3

Perhaps the most interesting part of Kerameikos was this:

a plague pit found just outside the site during the construction of the Metro station. It is estimated that it originally contained 150 bodies of men, women and children - arranged in some disorder. The date was 430 BC which corresponds to the catastrophic plague that broke out in the city when all the people from the surrounding Attic area had taken sanctuary there from the Spartans at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War. A large proportion of the population died so that the city was overwhelmed with dead on the streets, and in desperation the bodies were collected and buried in a mass grave at the edge of the city, without the usual rituals.

It was the first plague recorded in history (by Thucydides) and there has been much debate about the identification of the disease. A few years ago the Athenians analysed DNA found in the tooth pulps of some of these victims and found typhoid. However, the validity of their finding has since been disputed.

The best preserved skull, of an 11 year old girl has recently been constructed by a multidisciplinary team in Athens. She has been given the name Myrtis and there are a series of very interesting YouTube clips:

Video 1. Introduction.

Video 2. Interview with archeologist Efi Baziotopoulou-Valavani

Video 3. Interview with orthodontist Manolis Papagrigorakis and Dr. Manolis Maravelakison on the fabrication process of the skull.

Video 4. Interview with George Panagiaris, Professor of Conservation of Antiquities & amp; Works of Art and Dr. Chris Giapitzakis, Medical Geneticist

Video 5. Interview with painter Yiannis Stavrou who was asked to paint the portrait of Myrtis.

The museum displayed some of the items found from around the same time in the city excavations and included, from the top clay weights for looms (one of the chief occupations of Athenian women), a shrine, a dish with red figures, pots, small statues and oil lamps.

These were found in a house close by the city wall adjacent to the Sacred Gate. The building is on the right, the wall of the sacred gate to the left.

Here is a corner wall of the house. It was originally built in the year of the plague in 430 BC

Its plan was similar to many traditional Chinese houses with an entrance from the street leading to an alley way

 and then an inner courtyard with a well

with two-storied buildings around it. There were men and women's apartments, a kitchen and a store room. Later it became a potter's house and bronze smiths, and it is still possible to see the remains of the kiln

the tanks for clay

and also the remains of a drainage system, perhaps.

In the museum were some of the pots

produced in this era: one of the hundreds of potteries giving their name to this very interesting region of Athens called Kerameikos.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Remembering HTJ

Bluebells on the bank -
a patch of summer sky
fading as I reach.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The War Zone by Zoe Lambert

The War Zone by Zoe Lambert begins and ends with a flourish. The last story, in particular, I thought excellent. It is called 'We'll Meet Again'. Leon is in charge of the night shift in a Salford care home for Alzheimer's patients. As he goes through the night putting his charges to bed and then getting them up again with his co-workers he remembers his previous life as a mayor in Rwanda. The relationships are evoked with great subtlety.

Many of the stories feature Salford or Manchester, and many feature the lot of the refugee, and in particular the fight for acceptance in the UK. In' 33 Bullets', for instance, a titles inspired by a poem, an Iraqi professor waits to find out if his plea to remain in the UK is granted; it is a well-structured and tense piece. And in 'The Breakfast She Had' the premise is similar, this time looking at the plight of a mother and child from Sudan.

The setting of the familiar UK town is key. It brings the outside, violent and uncomfortable world closer: so the life of an old Lithuanian woman and her partisan colleagues are replayed to a Manchester office worker on a bus in 'These Words Are no More Than a Story'; the story of Margery the army wife is related to a Jehovah's Witness in 'Down Duchy Road'; and in 'From Kandahar' a soldier in the British army deals with coming home from Afghanistan. I liked this latter story very much. I was waiting for a comrade to die, but what happened was more shocking and revelatory than this. A later story, 'Her Blue Shadow', deals with the Afghan-British soldier relationship (mainly as a witness of traditional oppression), from the Afghan viewpoint.

The life of the soldier is a repeating theme, and in 'When the Truck Came' there is a striking evocation of the soldier's relationship with a gun amongst resistance fighters in the Congo. 'This is the most beautiful thing you will ever own' says the commander. 'You must love it. Worship it. Sleep with it. Eat with it.'

Several are set in earlier times: in ' The Spartacist League' I learnt a lot about someone I'd only just heard of before: Rosa Luxembourg, and I thought her betrayal was well done. The Spartacists were referred to again in 'Crystal Night'. In this story the physicist Lise Meitner was realistically evoked and the gradual unfolding of the scientific mystery of the unstable Uranium isotope was well done, although I found the explanations of the science a little confusing. Overall, though, I thought the interplay of drama and science worked well. The second world war came up again in 'Lebensborn'. This dealt with a topic I had not come across before - the collaboration of Norwegian women with German soldiers and what happened to them, and the main protagonist took the story neatly back again to modern Manchester: another strong and interesting story.

The very short story, 'My Sangar' was about surveillance taken to extreme, and I am not sure I have understood the subtleties of this story, nor of the story 'Turbofolk'. Although I found the writing thoroughly engaging, I was left with the nagging impression there was more to it than I realised. This last was set in former Yugoslavia, which was also the setting for the eponymous story 'The War Tour' combining an account of life in wartime Sarajevo with a writer's relationship with her travelling companion. Their story was concluded in the penultimate and one of the strongest stories in the collection: 'Our Backs to the Fort'. This, ironically, had perhaps the least to do with 'war' of any of the stories in the book, but was about a couple's faltering relationship. It told of the sort of quiet battle that most people will at one stage encounter. It was surprising and very well written.

Thanks to Comma Press for sending me a review copy of this book.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Kerameikos 2: The Street of Tombs

This grove marks the bifurcation of ways: the Sacred Way and the Street of Tombs.

Behind it a tumulus of an ancient Athenian clan with burials stretching back to the 8th century BC.

Take the southern route along the Street of Tombs, and the first walled enclosure is a brick funerary structure of the 5th century BC. Here was a found a bronze cauldron filled with the remains of a man, perhaps the famous leader Alkibiades wrapped in silk. This silk was not from China, however, or even the middle east, but probably from the island of Kos in the eastern Mediterranean, and described by Aristotle and mentioned in the New Testament.

Across the way is how it must have been

to walk along a road in Ancient Greece with statues of bulls

(the real one preserved inside the museum

together with the steles of the grandmother Ampherete

the youth Eupheros - their inclined heads the only indication of the grief they feel when contemplating the symbols of what gave them most joy in life)

and finally the sisters Demetria and Pamphile

erected at the end of the South Road - just before Demetrious of Phaleron introduced a sumptuary law which banned such extravagant gestures at the end of the 4th century BC (317 BC).

According to this book I read, Everyday Life in Classical Athens by T.B.L.Webster (a book published in 1969), the 'Free Style' of these plaques lasted from 425-370 BC. He points out is sometimes difficult to tell who has died. The people on these tombs rarely show emotion, and this restraint was rejected by some artists who showed realism of emotion in their painting, for example the works of Zeuxis who is credited with the discovery of using light and shade to give the impression of 3D. The theatre of the time also emphasised character and emotions, with Euripides and Sophocles evoking characters who have terrible experiences, and whose lives change direction after a conversion or vision.

The last decades of the fifth century BC were unsettled times with Greek fighting Greek, Thucydides was writing his history of the Peloponnesian war, and speech writers e.g. Gorgias and Herodes were starting to use psychology to arouse the required reaction from a jury. I suspect that these streets of tombs with their plaques of people quietly accepting their fate must have sometimes seemed a sanctuary from a world seething with so many ideas, images and rhetoric.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Kerameikos 1: Gates, Roads and Wall

Athens, like Rome, contracted after its hey-day. Sometime in the middle of the first century BC it was depopulated. People moved from the hills and settled in the lowlands around the Greek and Roman agoras. This is why some of the most historical parts of Athens are park lands now, and it is possible to see the tombs and shrines without digging into someone's basement or demolishing a swathe of houses. This is the view from the Pnyx - where the Athenians had their assemblies.

The Kermeikos part of the city is different. It is where the potters lived (where the English 'ceramics' comes from) and it is still in the busy part of the city. It was also where two of the most roads entered the city, and site of the most important ancient cemetery.

There is a plan outside

but it is difficult to hold in the head. Once inside here is a jumble of outlines (this is the area just outside the city walls between the two roads)

and it took me sometime to orientate myself. But gradually things stood out ad began to make sense. These are the remains of the Pompeion

- the place where people assembled materials and prepared to take part in the Panathenaian procession from the adjacent Thriasian (Dipylon) Gate (this is part of the wing of the wall leading to the gate)

along the Panathenaian Way

to the Acropolis.

This Great Panathenaia took place every four years in the middle of August and was the most important festival Ancient Athens. It is thought that the it is this procession that is depicted along the cella (the internal building) of the Parthenon.

The Pananthenaian Way was also known as Kerameikos Street and led not only to Plato's Academy but also the Thriasian plain, the Peloponnese peninsula and the rest of Greece. The first section of the road was also known as the Demosion Sema and this is where all the important burials took place.

The gate itself was one of the largest in the Ancient world and cunningly built. The entrance was through a courtyard which conveniently enclosed a would-be attacker leaving them exposed on every side by the city's defenders on the balustrades above.

On the other side of the Pompeion is another gate of similar design, this one called the Sacred Gate

because it served the Sacred Way,

and here it is possible to see the steps which would have led to the top of the tower.

The Sacred Way joined up with the Panathenaian Way, and along this yet other processions took place through the Sacred Gate to Eleusis. These were called the celebrations of the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries during which the Mysteries were revealed to initiates at Demeter's Shrine. These took place every five years, also in the late summer. Presumably, some years the Great Mysteries and the Great Panathenaia clashed which must have been a little like 2012's clash of the Olympics and the Queen's Jubilee - very expensive and an excuse for lots of public holidays. There also Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries and ordinary Panathenaea which took place every year. Athens was a place that had lots of festivals.

The Sacred Gate was made more complicated because it had to incorporate the Erdanos River.

This seems a rather grandiose term for something that turns out to be something of a dribble, but apparently it used to be much larger, its drainage disrupted during building works.

Also joining the two was the city wall. The original was built by Themistokles in 478 BC replacing a smaller wall and enclosing more of the city.

It was added to several times in response to threats and after battles, the final renovation by the Roman emperor Justinian in around the 6th century AD.

That is my general outline of the district of Kerameikos, but there is a lot more to it than this. I am going to try and cover other aspects in other posts. I found it to be a particularly fascinating part of Athens.