Searching for Mervyn Peake in Sark

Arrrr, those pesky pirates! You know the sort; nasty, violent, GREEDY? Take what they want, arrrr, and care not one whit for the contentment of the many, nor even of the few wealthy owners, nor even for that super royal family to whom tax is most certainly due.

Peake pirate from

Queen Elizabeth I (arrrr) knew all about pirates and she didn’t like them. She’d seen too many ships disappear, together with her income, and she wanted the pestilence fixed. Looking toward the Continent, she could tell Jersey and Guernsey were populated and policed enough, but Sark, a teeny island, a craggy outcrop of rock, drilled through by the sea until it resembled Swiss cheese, was trouble. Sark, even now holding the honour of the most caves of the Channel Islands, was riddled with pirates.

Peake’s first published work was Captain Slaughterboard, written and illustrated by Mervyn himself

Queen Liz wanted Sark cleaned up. She gave the entire island of 4.5 square miles (Sark 2017 Official Map) to a Lord, The Seigneur, and charged him with protecting her waters and getting rid of the blasted bandits.

The Seigneur, in his turn, allowed thirty-nine of his closest armed friends to rent a cheap piece of Sark so long as they kept guard. All they had to do was keep it free of pirates and enjoy the sort of dreamy rural existence made romantic by HE Bates. It can’t have been easy, I’m sure. The early settlers might even have had trouble finding topsoil on that windy place. But they soon found enough to grow sheep, vegetables and send their children off to fee-paying English schools and eat delicious French food. They invented lazy summer holidays and horse-drawn tourist peace and all was well.

After a few hundred years came World Wars and German invasion. This was difficult but eventually the locals overcame the barbed wire and life went on in the same idyllic manner. But, what if, after 450 years of dutiful protection, the locals became complacent? What if they forgot their obligations to the crown and their duty to protect Sark? What if modern pirates began circling the island in their helicopters with their fancy new technologies? What would happen if the Sarkese didn’t realise they were under attack until it was too late?

Peake apparently knew Treasure Island by heart

I was awarded the Titus Groan trilogy for debating at a small girls’ school in Dunedin, New Zealand. Even when staring at the pencil illustrations on the covers, I knew I’d been handed the key to another world.

The Gormenghast books were satire, adventure and a description of enclosed society. Mervyn Peake, artist and writer (as much as those two roles can be separate in his life) conceived and wrote much of the trilogy when Peake and his family lived on Sark. Much has been written about his childhood in China and how that experience might have contributed to the strangeness of his creation, but having visited Sark, I think that’s where he found the core of Gormenghast.

The Peakes moved to Sark in 1946 and lived an arcadian lifestyle for three years as he planned the series. As a single man he had lived on Sark for four years before the war, in an artist’s colony. He was an eccentric fellow with a pet cormorant and a penchant for nudism. He became an art teacher and a war artist later.

Seventy years on, I went to Sark in search of Peake, hoping to find evidence of his inspiration. He was the first world builder I’d ever encountered, in words or pictures.

“My voice has all the lushness
of what I can’t abide

And yet it has a beauty
most proud and terrible
denied to those whose duty
is to be cerebral.”

To me, Peake was more than a friend. He was a soulmate.

Waiting to buy tickets for the ferry at Granville

To get to Sark, one must travel by sea. Port de Granville of France was not colourful. The buildings were grey, beige or cream or a clotted mix and the sea was slate grey. The sky was filled with ashen clouds. The boats were once white with an odd faded blue for contrast. As I waited for the ferry I watched the floating world go by. As the ferry prepared to leave, I watched two men and a clump of fishing rods bump out of the protection of stone walls in a surprising bright yellow inflatable.

This is not the ferry. A fellow traveller.

It’s difficult to imagine how those old sea walls could possibly have been built without the aid of cranes and heavy engineering equipment. I suppose each wall, built on the remains of the previous, becomes stronger over the ages, like nearby Mont Saint-Michel, a dramatic medieval castle-cathedral, which may also have influenced Peake.

Mont St Michel

Au revoir La France! A bientôt!

From Granville we sailed to Jersey. “In Transit” whilst at Jersey meant walking off the boat, waiting for customs to look at the passport, getting a new boarding pass, walking to the waiting room and, without sitting down, getting in the queue to return with treble the amount of people wanting to visit Sark. In less than an hour we were on our way again, past a proud fort crouched on the Jersey coast fringed with cranes poised this way and that. Jersey, as far as I could tell, was an island plagued with developers.

Jersey fort

On board the ferry, I stood on deck, leaning into a bend in the rail, loving the rise and fall, the spray from the ploughed waves stinging my face. The wind was icey but there was warm sun on my back and soon enough we neared Sark waters. Rocky waters. Great dark craggy outcrops jagged from the white water all around the cliffs. A black tidal mark or plimsoll line bruised the rocks just above the water where the waves have engraved a thinner waist for the island.

Black lichen high water mark around Sark

Extraordinary harbour walls featured steep steps up to a road, which wound through a tunnel in the cliff. I found it difficult to imagine the grasping hands and burning backs, tearing muscles and broken legs; the vision and the technology that had to be utilised to build these sea walls.

Maseline is the main harbour of Sark, where the ferry and the mail boat visit – and not every day. The weather conditions are extreme. The sailors must be very skilled indeed to negotiate their paying customers up and down the steep steps to the ferry.

I puzzled, how could those early tenants have tamed the fierce thundering waters long enough to build towering stone walls right into it?

Welcome to Sark

There, through that proscenium cliff archway, was a walk up the hill. You could catch a tractor ride if you preferred but I chose the lovely green twisty path, and on, straight up the dusty thin carless road to the Sark Visitor’s Centre.

Leading us up the Sark garden path

My first impression of Sark town centre was ‘English Country Garden’. It was all very picturesque and human scale, apart from the giant vibrant begonias in all the bridesmaid colours of the world. I had no idea they could grow that big!

Over-sized begonias in the Sark garden experience

Sark seemed almost too good to be true.

The information officer told me that not many people come to Sark to seek Peake. What? REALLY?! The only reason I came was Peake. What else could there possibly be?

On the way up the main road it was difficult to ignore the amount of shops for rent and closed businesses. One entire side of the street was empty. Shut. This was peak tourist season – the middle of summer – August. The information woman told me crossly it was because of the cost of electricity. Far too high. (And not one solar panel in sight.)

I trooped off to La Vallete Campsite (a couple of paddocks on the cliff edge of a farm) where I put up my borrowed tent. When I fronted at the campsite ‘office’, more a mud-room entry space really, Linda said she found all her emails blurred into one – which camper was I? What did I want? Exactly? Just a place to lay my weary head.

Incredibly grateful that Roseann, Olivier and Mike lent me their tent!

I was unused to camping, unprepared and unskilled. I chose a site close to the edge of the cliff, though fenced in on two sides with blackberries. It appeared someone had desecrated the corner with some toilet paper streamers. They had been rained on. I tucked them back into the blackberry bush with the tent-peg mallet, of which there were several on offer. I put the small end of the tent into the prevailing wind but who knew where the wind would blow next?

There were a few puffy clouds looking thoughtful and attractive about this intense blue sky while the sun beat down meaningfully. Several charming yachts were drifting below, parked in La Grève de la Ville like a school of tethered white and blue tuna.

What sort of pirates sail the high seas?

What to do next? Obviously I had to go to the Vicar’s Fête, one of the Sark calendar highlights. Apparently the Peake family had lived nearby in a housed called Le Chalet. While I struggled to decide what book to buy at the bookstall (couldn’t) the auction began. I assumed the auctioneer was none other than the vicar himself and he proceeded to give a progress report of the Fair. There was a loud cry of despair from two women next to me when they heard there were no cakes left. A chap muttered to the bookseller, ‘Well, I’m not surprised. There weren’t many to start with.’ Suddenly I looked left and right. Was I in an episode of Midsummer Murders? The all white and cashmere Vicarage workers were certainly over fifty years old (many harking back fondly to their seventieth birthday). A small gang of vaguely Gothic teens/early twenties lounged on the grass to prove the exception.

The Bank. Summer outfit.

As I left the Fête, I noted a few summer visitors – I suspect you wouldn’t get called tourists – harrying their children around on bicycles. Because there’s no cars and you can easily hear a tractor on the way, or one of the horse-drawn carts, children hoon about freely.

Up by the path to the lighthouse (now an Airbnb with no public access) I found a well-placed bench overlooking the yachts to my left and several rugged rock islets scattered over the waters to my right. The waves were rustling below, tickling the shore. I could hear seagulls crying out somewhere and behind me in the bush grasshoppers (or crickets) sang a high-pitch bed of noise.

With lighthouse to the right and La Grève de la Ville to the right, my dinner bench was a peaceful spot

As I ate my dinner I watched currents moving under the water. The current coming around to the right (towards Maseline Harbour) was smooth, in contrast to choppy scuff marks sweeping the current along. It was as though someone had come through with a big wooden spoon and made a curvy pattern across my sea view. A speedboat ripped across the water. Dark navy depths rejoined as the white zipline faded away. The water then had a nap, brushed wrong way in a pleasing curve around me and smoothed further out like a rainbow arc but all tones of navy stripes. Then came a flotilla of small jet boats – possibly fisher folk returning for their dinner? Possibly cocaine smugglers for cocktail hour?

Les Fontaines where there are definitely smugglers caves just out of frame

The next morning I skittered down steep stairs to La Fontaine Bay, a sheltered and rocky smuggler’s cove where the sun blasted down. A seagull in the distance tangled with a plane far too high, altogether there were far too many planes roaring overhead. There were two great caves on the opposite side of the bay. I thought the tide was out because the seaweed was still fresh wet on the rocks. I thought of Peake, and Titus, as he might have walked these rocks and pathways, and how the woman in the tourist information office said, ‘Well, he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, is he.’

A local grandfather made the Epeguerie rock pool many years ago. It’s leaking now. And, look, there’s George’s boat taking a load of tourists around the island!

I spent a good part of the day in my togs staring in a rockpool instead. The rock pools were heaving with little fish. When I assumed the gazing position, rubbernecking into the shallow twinkles, two fish came to look at me as if they were watching telly. They watched me watching them. Another swam through. Quickly. Then another. One of the watchers changed position, coming a little closer. They all kept a steady eye on me.  A darker one took shelter on an outcrop, just under the surface. As a fragile cluster of guppy things swam by, the dark one up above slapped the water somehow, making a surprising snappy clapping. I took up various positions around this Grandpa-made pool, leaking slightly now, but still absorbing viewing.

I marched up to the nose of the island, Bec du Nez, where seagulls sit like complacent white crowns on royal lumps of rock, their soft feathers littering the sheep-gnawed grass around them. It’s called the common and the guide suggests counting butterflies. Too many flutter by and I take it the counting is a joke. Mostly quiet brown creatures, perhaps with a spot or a bit of pale and some colourful ones too with flashes of orange and yellow. I mainly walked around the Eperquerie area, eating far too many blackberries. I wanted to get to the historical society in time to enquire about the ruins up there and ask what that black stain is. I took a bit more of a stroll to examine the Buddist carving on a rock. Not sure why it’s there. And then a snooze in the sun.

Perhaps the Buddhist carving is simply for us to ponder while relaxing in the sun or, maybe, it is to protect the island from evil.

When I eventually regained enough strength to eat more blackberries I got back on track and hit town too late for the historic society. Turned off by the Sunflower Café but admired the Sunflower Project, a two acre field donated by the farmer to grow sunflowers and other plants for birds and insects. Very happy to see Shenanigans Café open where a friendly young lady from Cardiff lent me her charger, made me a coffee, and a cherry jam sandwich. They even employed a solar panel or two. All well with the world.

Although impressed by the ancient windmill, I was saddened the bakery was no longer used. In fact, there’s no bakery open at all on the island. Here’s an opportunity for someone to run the place the way it used to be. Or stick up a new windmill to get things cooking. (Could they afford the thousand-pound-a-week plus rent the owners are asking for the bakery on the main road?)

The windmill’s wings are clipped (off)

The next day I woke to the tent flapping briskly in the wind. I had a dream in which I was picked up (while still in the tent) and moved to a hall. In my dream hall, many people were sleeping next to each other. I woke up (in the dream) to find myself between two bickering young men. One stretched out, over me, to annoy the other and I slapped his arm lightly. He was upset but I didn’t care. A young doctor came to look at my prone self. She looked worried. They hadn’t been able to wake me previously. I reassured her that I was in fine fettle. I must have fallen into such a deep sleep because I’d been awake after I thought I’d lost my wallet.

This last bit was true. I wanted to see the famous Dark Sky so when I woke I jumped at the chance to wander over to the toilet block. But I didn’t need a torch. The sky was bright. There was a full glorious moon. As I watched she pulled an elegant cloud-veil across her face. I dreamily went to watch the lighthouse flashing around the bay. This was the sign-posted lighthouse, now closed to the public, certainly a working warning light so that was reassuring. No big boats about to crash into the cliff. When I arrived back to the tent I discovered my wallet missing. Panic. Flashed the torch everywhere it might have been. Raced back to the loo and the lighthouse viewpoint. Started planning survival strategies. Got back to tent, tried to avoid dew soaked tent flap, began sorting and found wallet straightaway. Thank goodness. Asleep immediately to dream the wind picked me up. But it didn’t.

It was all just the wind in the tent. 

La Coupée is a very thin and wind vulnerable connection between Sark and Little Sark. Note the droppings left by the most popular form of tourist transport.

The next day I walked over the steep, curving La Coupée, a road built and fenced by prisoners of war, to Little Sark. Believing strongly in discretion above valour, I decided not to climb down to the Venus Pool alone. Looked arduous and I still had time to return to the historical society. If no one hears you scream did you actually fall to your death off a rocky cliff?

At the peak, I lounged on a soft patch of vivid green with tiny stalks bearing little cups of crispy white petals. Sark. Blackberries, sweet as desire. Butterflies, light and mobile as an already forgotten thought.

Sun bore down in full force, sea birds wheeled around and overhead. Many spattered brown birds – herring gulls? No wonder Peake thought of angels when he came to write Mr Pye, his book actually set on Sark. The jagged landscape is covered in fluffy white feathers.

I was so KEEN. Arrived at the historical society office 12:25 with plenty of time before they shut. Popped in to the loo, no potable water there and came to stand in line at the Heritage Room. Or rather, I waited in the corridor. A man held forth to a small elderly lady. She did not see me but I sort of bowed to the gentleman to indicate that I intended to move into the room, was that allowed? He met my gracious greeting with a blank stare I took to be assent so I moved into the space. Glass cabinets and folders of information about Sark surrounded me. I looked up the meadow pippet in birds of Sark, as the meadow pippet is my favourite bird. I think I may have seen a rock pippet near the old mines. I could find, as I slowly perambulated around the room, precisely nothing about Mervyn Peake. Nothing about pirates or the dark plimsoll line.

Meanwhile, the man held forth about the crimes of the British education system. He used to be a headteacher. He despaired at the constant measuring to which children are subjected in the current British system. As does his wife, a sixty percenter, but working full-time. As it turned out, you wouldn’t believe it, he, Richard, came from Wollstonecraft (or somewhere), which is EXACTLY where the thin, elderly lady’s brother and sister-in-law reside. Extraordinary coincidence. After that they spoke about the exhibits in front of them, neolithic axe heads and other items of geological interest. I believe he may now be a geologist of some sort. They were getting on splendidly and I’d perused the flowers of Sark and the rocks of Sark and the moths of Sark and the interesting beads, possibly made from Baltic amber found around Sark, when I realised these two had just begun to warm up. I took my departure (unnoticed) and headed to the Post Office where I intended to buy and post postcards.  And there, at last, in The Gallery Stores and Post Office, I found Mervyn Peake and his creations.

All the Peake Offerings in the Sark Post Office and Gallery

After dealing with postcards I went back to request the nearest potable water tap at tourist information. While I waited I looked through a beautiful coffee table book, ‘Art for the Love of Sark’. This is the record of an inspirational visit to Sark by twenty artists from Artists For Nature ( It is a remarkable venture and I urge you to peruse the website and buy the book, if you can. One of the artist members, Rosie Guille, runs a delightful little gallery on the main street of Sark where you can pick up the book, perhaps one of her own evocative paintings or practice the art yourself. Here is her online gallery:

Back in the Sark Visitor Centre, the kind officer offered me the still warm water from her kettle. She preferred to boil the bore water. They have a good water table. Don’t need to go down too far. I remarked upon the lack of visible water tanks and that bore water is, of course, finite. She felt not. A good water table is a water table for good. I continued in my strident, visitor knows best sort of way, surely that’s the problem in California? She said, ‘Sark gets more rain than California.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that a good reason for water tanks?’

Didn’t seem like a smooth conversation did it, so I bought up Mervyn again. I wouldn’t let him go, I just couldn’t, and I said what a shame it was there was no shrine to this great writer. She said, ‘There’s a lot of artists that came from Sark. They couldn’t possibly commemorate them all.’

I said, ‘Like who?’ She said, ‘Cheeseplate and Topless’, people I hadn’t heard of so I added, ‘Oh yeah,’ I muttered dismissively, ‘And let’s not forget Victor Hugo!’ 

One of the closed hotels features a bar honouring Victor Hugo

Wasn’t it amazing that Victor Hugo had only been on the island for two weeks and he had a cave and a bar named after him while Peake had lived here for seven years? ‘Oh, she said, ‘Hugo was here longer than that.’ I said, ‘Not according to the pamphlet over there … ‘ And she looked askance at me.

Well, they hedge their bets, don’t they …

In order to lighten the atmosphere I added that I had started to see Gormenghast as a satire about Sark itself, what with all that inherited fifedom, and the enclosed nature of the island. She hadn’t read it but agreed that although many people had wanted democracy in 2008, many had wanted the island to stay the way it was. Is that so? To swing it all back to Mr Peake and his glory, I said it was a shame there was nothing available in the tourist information shop about him and she said, ‘Perhaps there’s nothing of his available to sell?’ And I said, ‘Well, there is in the Post Office!’

After a desperate pause in which we both wanted to be polite, she said, ‘Did you know he used to live there?’ And I said, ‘No, really?’ (Which was a lie because I did know by then) and she said, ‘Before it was the Post Office, of course. They had some pictures up once, showing him painting there.’ After making all the correct admiring sounds I said, ‘I had heard when he first lived here, when he was freezing in a barn, he worked in the fields to get money and had a pet cormorant.’ She looked askance again, ‘Well, you know better than I do, for sure.’

So I said that she was lucky to have the books to look forward to, that they were wonderful and thanks for the water. I could have reminded her that the books were all available in the PO but you know, I’m proud of myself. I knew when to stop.

There was the dead bakery on the main road. CLOSED. Another shop on the main street, CLOSED. Then, on the way to Dixcart Bay, a great swimming bay, I passed a large fancy hotel. CLOSED. What was going on? Time for some research.

Sark, straight ahead?

The price of electricity has little to do with the price of politics in Sark. Turns out Sark does have a darker side. Sark really is too good to be true.

Under all those pots of petunias, pretty tree-lined laneways and those quaint seventeenth century stone buildings lies a squawling ten-year-old democracy, fighting a 450 year-old-fifedom. Or is it?

Shady laneway in Sark – around the bend?

The democracy was apparently born of twin media barons, David and Frederick Barclay, trying to buy their way into tax-free law-making power. Come on. Did Mervyn Peake write that stuff? (NB: There were twins in the drama of Gormenghast but they were victims. Cora and Clarice were killed by Steerpike, a young man thirsting for power.)

Peake certainly loved pirates as described by Rob Maslen in a fine blog post but I don’t think Mervyn would much care for these boys. The Barclay Brothers have caused a sort of disease, a kind of cancer, in the form of untended grapevines, empty hotels and falling down buildings holding up the land.

Vines in apparent summer disrepair

I really felt at home in Sark but what a beastly thing this duo of billionaires have done. They’ve bought a good percentage of the ancient tenements but have not yet managed to sway the democratic elections enough to get their chosen people in power to make the legal changes they require. They want to make their bit of the island a separate tax haven. They normally live in Monaco but they’ve built a showy castle on a their private mini-island called Brecqhou.

They’ve installed a helipad and roads and landed cars – against the rules, nay ethos, of Sark. They own all the empty shops and most of the main island’s hotels; those now standing empty. So there’s no work in those CLOSED hotels and no paying visitors. Which means the population of the island was half its normal summer number last year.

You can watch a Panorama episode available on You Tube that explains how these two media moguls have been trying to play monopoly and throw the board over when things aren’t going the way they like. (I’ve seen my sister do it. Definitely a thing.) 

The next morning was cloudy. I eyed the tumbling impending rain clouds suspiciously as I rushed to finish my breakfast before it came down again. I managed to bring everything over to the shed where there was a sort of veranda. I stretched the tent out over the ground and sipped my coffee while weak shards of sun stroked the damp nylon into submission.

Once I figured everything would not rot away if rolled up, I packed and left the stuff ready for the appointed pick up. I managed to walk the delightful garden dell path to the harbour five times that day. Once, when the friendly bank ladies thought George wouldn’t go out in this weather and I imagined I’d better take a look at this enclosed bay, Creux Harbour, to see how small and cute it really was, and how the water smashed up through the stairway.

While waiting for the Non Pareil to arrive I strolled around the picturesque Creux Harbour

I strode back up to find a phone which just ate my money and refused to connect with anyone. Luckily I ran into Rosie rather than have to face the Information Officers again. She put in a call to George for me and we were in business. Back down the windy path I went. On the way past, I couldn’t help myself, I popped into the smart corporate looking real estate company office. The smartly-attired business woman at the desk agreed there were a lot of closed shops on the main road and, yes, it was a shame.

I mentioned I came from Australia and there was an interesting phenomenon, started in Newcastle a few years back, called ‘Renew‘. The idea was that local officials would make empty, run-down shops or premises available to artists and small desktop computer type start-up businesses for peppercorn rents in order to bring life back into blighted areas. There was quite a lot available on the internet about it, I pressed on, Renew had been a great success. She agreed wholeheartedly, making no move to search her computer. She pretended to take a note in her diary and promised faithfully the Chamber of Commerce would be discussing it at the very next meeting.

I marched back down again and found the eighty-year old George and his son, Morgan, waiting in a jolly little boat, the Non Pareil. They took us from hightide Creux harbour, round the island with the most caves in the channel (Sark, remember?) and back to a low tide harbour. Here could be a clue for a renewable energy source – tidal power must surely be an option on Sark. Watch Morgan move the Non Pareil quick smart out of there!

George had met Mervyn Peake. He reported he was a very nice man. And George’d been in the tv series, Mr Pye, too. In fact nearly everyone on Sark had been involved!

Low tide at Creux Harbour reveals how those harbour walls might have been built!

When we went past the castle, George spoke unenthusiastically about the lack of community spirit of the Barclay boys.

George and his son Morgan take the tourists around Sark in all the weathers

These modern pirates, the Baron Boys – Barclaydum and Barclaydee – came in helicopters, spread fake news that makes German propaganda look like nursery rhymes and when they didn’t like the way their game of Monopoly was heading, they threw the board over so no one could finish the game. They made several families, true descendants of that first Seigneur, the friend of Elizabeth I, walk the financial plank. They bought up houses, hotels and disgraced the local Doctor Kindness himself.

The sad thing is that this isn’t a draft of the fourth (or fifth) Gormenghast book. This is life on Sark today. Unless the Royals, who happen against all reason, to be good buddies with the Barclay Media Barons – those very same Media Barons relishing once-private information about royals, celebrities and other saucy scandals – unless Prince Charles – whose architect pal built the pseudo castle on BB island with, I kid you not, real canons balanced on ramparts artlessly covered in Spanish stone, unless the Crown can come to Sark’s rescue somehow, it’s difficult to see how this stalemate will end. The Pirate Twins themselves are now old men kept alive by the wonders of modern medicine. What of their heirs? What will become of Sark in the long run?

If the parliament or the Lord (Seigneur) could somehow regain control of the tenements belonging to the main island, I wondered if it might be possible to let the Barclay Barons have Brecqhou Island on a long-term lease? Surely they did not sell the land freehold? If the community could retrieve the hotels and shops on the mainland, they could get their own economy functioning once more.

Sark’s situation put me in mind of another David and Goliath story, that of Cuba. There was a thrown monopoly board if ever there was one. In my humble opinion Sark urgently needs to bring in permaculture experts, as they did there (Power of Community: How Cuba survived peak oil) particularly those knowledgeable about burning rubbish and making renewable energy. The stench of foul smoke overhanging the harbour is awful. Sark clearly has wind potential, and the tidal variation is powerful. Sark could surely become self-sufficient in energy one day.

Is it possible the Barclay Twins, their heirs and the Royals could join the community to build such a forward-looking and clean energy exemplar for the British protected Channel Islands?

My dream? Where I was picked up by the wind? Have I been asleep all this time? 

Searching for Arthur Ransome; Coniston Copper Mine YHA, Lake District

Remember Swallows and Amazons? Tales of adventures and holiday intrigue by Arthur Ransome? Remember climbing Kanchenjunga, mining for gold and avoiding pirates? Remember protecting birds and sleuthing? So do I, fondly. So, this year I went sleuthing. I travelled to the Lake District in Northern England to climb Kanchenjunga in search of Arthur Ransome; journalist, novelist, sailor, spy.

Coniston Coppermine YHA with the Old Man Coniston (Kanchenjunga) up to the left and mining workings in front


That’s right. You read correctly. Spy.

Ransome was a British spy (codename C.76) during the Russian revolution of one hundred years ago. He also wrote the biography of Oscar Wilde which precipitated Lord Alfred Douglas to launch into a scandalous trial. In Russia, Ransome liked to play chess — with Lenin — and married Trotsky‘s secretary, Evgenia.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Arthur Ransome’s heart lay in North England, in the Lake District. As the train pulled in to Windermere Station I felt the same excitement and anticipation stirred up before meeting an old friend. This was where I’d spent my childhood – albeit while reading. There was no homing pigeon to let go but I felt I was coming home. I was determined to see the lake. Hefting my pack, I walked down the hill. And kept walking. After too much walking I was hungry for lunch and annoyed they called the town the same name as the lake when the town is actually called Bowness. The lake is far from the town.

The sun came out as I reached the water. The farms and forests made green-hued patchwork around the glinting lake. Struggled to find suitable food, bought fixings and, as fat swans too lazy to even stand watched me balefully, strolled on board a cruise of Windermere.

Lady Windermere’s umbrella with fat swan

The lake itself was just as I remembered – from the books and the screen version (only the first, haven’t seen the most recent) – Swallows and Amazons for EVER! The captain sat on his comfortable stool and sighed as chatty Chinese folk cheerfully ignored his interesting details about the length and depth of the lake.

People enjoyed the sunshine, both around the water and on it; lots of different sailboats and cruisers. There was a houseboat. I did not see a plank. It was lovely; the water’s edge, the forests and the remarkably few buildings. The place was incredibly preserved. Scattered buildings fitted into the theme with one or two modern outcrops that implied influential friends. The Lake District, a living National Park, features farms, tourism and some industry but there you go, it might have developed like Surfers Paradise if someone hadn’t protected it to some degree (surfing on Windermere is unlikely).

Gathered myself together. Found my bus. I could only get as far as Ambleside where I had to wait for an hour for the next bus for Coniston. Found supplies and then dropped into a pub for grog (ginger ale) and hot chips. Thank goodness I did because, after an excellent bus trip (the driver a Henna Dame, recently widowed and newly full-time on those curly stonewalled roads), I needed that fuel for the refreshing walk up to my hostel. My pack was heavy but the views were incredible. Note to drivers: Henna Dame supposed car hire firms kept big cars so punters would have to bring them back scratched. You will pay extra for any damage, of course.

The land was stunning and relatively untouched. I couldn’t believe how green and wonderful the forests were and then coming around a corner, I saw Coniston; a sliver of wonder, a slip of lovely, a slide of thought, a glimmer lake in place.

First glimpses of Coniston Water on the way to the Coppermines

I called in to Holly Howe YHA by mistake and, redirected, marched on up the hill, on the way to Dixon’s farm. Sheep yelled to each other. The Copper Mine YHA was nestled into the hills curving around behind it. With a well-stocked kitchen and dining area, it had a comfortable living room and a terrific view down the valley. The staff were relaxed and friendly, used to dealing with walkers, school groups and naturalists of all ages and stripes.

Evening view from YHA Coppermines

My shared room was labelled Old Man of Coniston. In the morning I got up, ate a hearty breakfast and sat on the front door step to tie my boots. The house martins flew across my vision, getting closer and closer, curving around the front of the building. Worried they were trying to get to their nest, I backed away and one did disappear into the eaves. The others continued to buzz me. We squatted in the sun while the young YHA host spread his map on the ground and pointed the Old Man out to me. It’s obvious after you’ve been up there.

On the way up the Old Man

As I climbed I recognised the lie of the land from Ransome’s drawings. I expected to see those little figures in shorts clambering up the slopes beside me. (I’m sure I saw a man in a squashy hat out of the corner of my eye. He ducked into one of the old workings.) The weather came and went. I felt shivery even in June especially through my sweaty shirt.

Old Mine Workings Old Man Coniston

There were friendly folk murmuring over their picnics, people walking their dogs and plenty of grass for the sheep to gnaw. A small dappled brown bird came along the path with me, a white patch on her rump showing as she flashed away to the side or flounced up ahead. She didn’t seem distressed or leading me anywhere, just hopping along. Like me.

The rocks were bursting through the green grass and there was plenty of bracken growing. But higher up, around the old workings, slate lay piled artistically. There must have been good reason; water, or those enormous cables needing housings or perhaps some kind of machine required flat areas. The closed copper and slate mines left more than their scars on the hills; their rusty remnants now crazy sculptures in the landscape.

The cairn at the top of the Old Man and a view down to Coniston Waters

It was thrilling to think that I climbed, walked and stood just where Ransome might have been. Perhaps once he sat right there and ate pemmican (corned beef) sandwiches. That might have been the very spot where he contemplated the S. A. & D.’s next adventure or the place where he found his ‘Homing Rock’ of inspiration.

Ransome’s Homing Rock and the cairn as he would have seen it

The Lake District inspired many writers. Potter, Wordsworth and Ruskin are honey for bee tourists, but for me, the only attraction was Arthur Ransome. He was the man who taught me to respect nature. He taught me about birds and taking responsibility for the care of the environment. I wondered about other walkers as I climbed Old Man Coniston. Were they for Ransome? I chatted to a father-son duo, both fans of Pigeon Post. (Later I bought a copy for the hostel when I discovered neither of the hosts had read it. You can read it when you visit.)

It was quiet on the Old Man as I sat in the sun. A small chirpy bird from below flew straight up very high, hovered a bit, and then dropped down again, chirruping and whirring as it sank. Looked like fun. Following a current? Far too small and chirpy for a bird of prey but then it might have sighted a tasty insect. But wait, this small, whistly, feathered thing did it again! It flew up as high as me, chirping all the while and then floated down. It was playing a game! Go up as high as possible and then drop down; wheeeeeee …

The chirpy bird turned out to be a meadow pippet, their mating flights called parachuting. It was the same bird – speckly brown – I saw flitting and flirting on the path. I know because I asked a fellow back at the hostel. He wore a tee shirt with a big black bird on it that said ‘Get Rooked’.

Fellow traveller on Old Man Coniston

The wind blew too cool for sitting still. I ran out of food. I thought I’d better go back down again. It would take a couple of hours. I noticed a fault line directly behind the big mining operation. Didn’t suppose there’s many earthquakes here but it looked strange in this setting. Not quite in the lie of the land. Which was jagged and unpredictable enough already.

Because I longed to see Ransome’s desk and red slippers at the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, I spent the next day on the buses. I had to go via Grassmere where I leaped from the bus and into the Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. I felt huge and bulbous as we tourists stooped our bulky way through those cramped rooms imagining the smoke and coughing and poetry readings. How did Dorothy manage in long skirts?

Looking down on Dove Cottage, Grassmere

I queued to buy Grasmere Gingerbread and a wonderful cross between biscuit and cake it was. I wish I’d known how good because I would have bought another packet. Several. Kendal mint cake, another local essential, was good enough for the likes of Sherpa Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hilary. I worried it would be like toffee but it’s more like a kind of delicious icing sugar fudge – not hard on the teeth at all.

Local vegan treats

From Grassmere I negotiated grumpy bus drivers and got myself to Kendal. I rushed into the museum ten minutes before closing. The Arthur Ransome room was depleted because some of the exhibits, and yes, those red Turkish slippers, were showing in a special exhibition at Coniston Waters.

Ransome’s chess board

Chess comment

But I was able to see bits and pieces; his chess board, a portrait by Dora Altounyan and some cartoons plus his very small desk. Sketches for Secret Water and Pigeon Post were framed on the wall.

Portrait of Ransome and two of his sketches

On my last day at Coniston Water I was not able to find a sailing school or someone to take me out in a boat, apart from the tourist launch. Seeing I’d already cruised Lake Windemere, I found a large empty rubbish bag near the camping ground and, together with other rubbish, collected some dog owners’ bags of pets’ productions left along the path. Perhaps they think they’ll pick them up on the way back? Note to dog owners: you CAN take it with you.

Even though Coniston was considered the quiet lake and it wasn’t school holidays, there were plenty of people around. Once I’d marched for a bit to shake them off, I found some peace and quiet. Apart from the canoeing school and the little launch there was a kayak powering along with a man singing happily in what sounded like Hindi. Fellow walkers murmured behind me. Baby canoeists cackled and halloooed like lost ducks. Real baby ducks puffed and fluffed behind their proud mother who seemed to travel backwards. Oak leaves shook and danced in the sunlight. I wished I could have been sailing. That’s probably where Ransome would have been.

The Ruskin Museum turned out to be more about Coniston than the titular hero. Work implements, especially those of mining and lace were front, and a room devoted to The Bluebird project, Donald Campbell and his fatal attempt at the speed record, centre.

Not sure why it was named Ruskin lace? I’d always been suspicious of Ruskin because he was mean to his wife although apparently that’s contentious. Apart from his wife, with whom he did not have sex, he also enjoyed romance with a Spanish lady and with another girl of ten years old. His apologists think there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him and he was just high minded and moral. He certainly liked nature, painted nicely and gave inspiring lectures.

Right in the middle of all this was ‘Mavis’, a sailing dingy renamed ‘Amazon’. She was the first boat Ransome sailed with the Altounyan children.

The Amazon herself in the Ruskin Museum

Banners on stands featuring quotes from Swallowdale and Winter’s Holiday told me I was in the right place. I made my way up the stairs and into the small room featuring the special exhibit, ‘Arthur Ransome, Adventures in Russia’. It felt like the tip of an iceberg without much rhyme or reason. For a start, the red slippers that started off the whole shebang, the gift from the Altounyan children, which caused him to pen Swallows and Amazons, were hidden under a shelf without a label. The accompanying notes were illuminating, although in the time I was there, reading avidly, several other visitors wandered in and out and didn’t even open their folders.

exhibition posters from the Ruskin Museum

His ‘Homing Rock’, the piece of Old Man Coniston he always carried – wrote with it on his desk – was there was bigger than I’d imagined and had a hole in the middle to keep it tied to him or his luggage somehow. Various intriguing documents were displayed, such as his passports, both in Russian and in English. There was some doubt about his affiliation when he returned to England but more serious concern when they thought his new wife Eugenia was smuggling diamonds.

Ransome happened to be staying across the road from the Winter Palace in 1917. I was taken aback by comments that suggested him naive or innocent. Ransome was deeply involved with the leadership of the Bolsheviks and I can’t believe he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. He understood strategy extremely well. He predicted the revolution and passed that information to his masters at MI5 and MI6. When it was suggested that Britain should somehow intervene he said Russian people should be left to get on with their lives. (He might have lived to rue that day!) As more information is released more books are written about him.

Some of the many items about Ransome available in the museum bookshop

Ransome understood codes, he knew when to pry and when to lurk and he taught thousands of children how to do it too. They may have turned into spies, birdwatchers or sailors, campers, scientists or journalists, but Ransome knew what he was about. He was about climbing Old Man Coniston. Looking out at the misty sky and watching a chirpy bird chirruping as far and as high as he could go and then parachuting impressively down again. Living your life as high and far as you can and letting the wind fill your sails.

I touched Coniston Waters

What’s your favourite Ransome book?


Oh, I love a good book club!

And, as I’ve mentioned before, the first evs Ceres Bookclub was a GOOD bookclub! CERES is a sustainability centre in the suburbs of Melbourne. There’s a cafe, nursery and education about renewable energies. What a cool place to get reading!

Our bookgroup centred around a feast, much intense, amused discussion and lots of inspiration. Three books were featured, Atmosphere of Hope by Tim Flannery, The Future, by Al Gore, and Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall. Tim was there in person with his reflective book and his science mind all filled with notions of mitigation. Of course, the mirror-like quality of his cover is supposed to reflect YOU – you are the hope for the atmosphere.

Each of these books were presented by smart, highly qualified speakers, experts in climate change, education and entertaining in their own rights. After an able introduction from the bookgroup organiser, Lorna Pettifer, Tim Flannery spoke about Hope, describing technical and scientific suggestions to prevent serious damage from climate change.

The second tome was Gore’s vision of The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change and Sarah Houseman was kind enough to distill that enormous amount of research into a digestible titbit.

The final book was the only one I’d had time to read properly (it being shorter!). Kirsty Costa presented Don’t even think about it, Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change.

As George Marshall was unable to join us in Melbourne (he lives in Wales) he created an affable video, welcoming us to the bookgroup and introducing the major themes of his book. As we munched our delicious Tamil fare we warmed to his main theme, which I think was ‘share’. Here’s a basic primer:

<iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>iframe>

George is far more sophisticated than that, proposing tangible strategies for activists. He’s all about cooperation and converting the UNCONVERTED in a non-threatening manner. He took a tea caddy to a parley with the Tea Party in Texas.

He sat and chatted with a gun-toting woman, her family and friends for hours. He visited with survivors of a wild fire and toured New Orleans with survivors of Katrina to discover that the last thing survivors of disasters want to think about is climate change. As a general rule, folk don’t want to think about climate change at all. He notes that climate change is described by various thinkers as a ‘perfect’ or ‘wicked’ problem, in that there are so many reasons us human beings find it difficult to come to terms with.

George collects contrary thinkers. He discovered that denying climate change doesn’t mean denying all possible threats to the planet.

One of the biggest funders of an Information Centre warning of potential collisions with meteors or asteroids is a global warming denialist, Benny Peiser. This particular fellow even has an asteroid named after him, 7107 Peiser, officially listed on NASA’s website. ‘Peiser’s own website, meanwhile, routinely savages NASA’s climate scientists.’ (Interestingly, I can’t find Peiser on NASA’s website.)

George Marshall also examines funding difficulties faced by museums.

Smithsonian: David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins

Smithsonian: David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins

The Smithsonian is the biggest museum in the world. Its exhibition exploring climate change through time is ‘directly funded by those nefarious Koch brothers‘. That’s ‘twenty million dollars for the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins.’ The Science Museum in London has an Atmosphere Gallery. The primary sponser is Shell Oil.

Mr Marshall observes that writer Michael Crichton was invited to present scientific evidence at a US Senate Committee hearing, resulting from his eco-terrorist novel, State of Fear. Dr Crichton held a Bachelor in Science and he was a medical doctor. Hard to know his qualifications in atmospheric science. Certainly knew how to create a page turner and make a PILE of money!

Don’t even think about it is such an interesting book, I really encourage you to find it in your library. George writes about interviewing young folk at the coz play convention, Comic Con. He assumed these kids would be tech savvy, informed and interested. He asked them what they imagined for their future. He points out that we all knew what the future held when we were kids 50 years ago – it was Tomorrowland! But youngsters today? Go on, ask some for yourself.

Another aspect he explores in the book is personal culpability. Are YOU to blame for climate change? Did you DRIVE to work? FLY across the world for a HOLIDAY? Take a good long hard look at yourself (in Tim’s book perhaps!) George Marshall points out that conservatives particularly HATE being told what to do, particularly by governments and ideologues and GREENIES – conservatives REALLY hate environmentalists – BAH to turning off water! HUMBUG to switching light globes!

Don’t even think about it is an easy, entertaining and persuasive read. If nothing else, herein you will find strategies for dealing with rich Uncle Dan over the port after Chrissie dinner. George suggests listening to Uncle, trying to understand what his fears are, sympathising with his grief and stress co-operation rather than unity. Be prepared to learn from religions – they’ve managed to keep followers for centuries. Drop over-used environmentalist culture such as polar bears and Save-the-Planet type slogans. Mr Marshall describes his surprise when he recognised the Tea Party Activists had much in common with his own tribe of environmental colleagues.

What have we in common?

If nothing else, I’m guessing we ALL love a good BOOKCLUB!!

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

Goodreads Giveaway!

If you would like a free print copy of Man of Clay then head to Goodreads at the end of February!

(There are some really thoughtful reviews there, too!)

Cover of Man of Clay showing a sleeping baby surrounded by green and gold frogs

cover designed by Risa Liu featuring sculpture ‘Small Things’ by Sam Jinks

This is going to be interesting …


<div id=”goodreadsGiveawayWidget175906″><!– Show static html as a placeholder in case js is not enabled –>
<div class=”goodreadsGiveawayWidget” style=”max-width: 350px; margin: 10px auto; padding: 10px 15px; border: 2px solid #EBE8D5; border-radius: 10px;”>
.goodreadsGiveawayWidget { color: #555; font-family: georgia, serif; font-weight: normal; text-align: left; font-size: 14px;
font-style: normal; background: white; }
.goodreadsGiveawayWidget p { margin: 0 0 .5em !important; padding: 0; }
.goodreadsGiveawayWidgetEnterLink {
display: inline-block;
color: #181818;
background-color: #F6F6EE;
border: 1px solid #9D8A78;
border-radius: 3px;
font-family: “Helvetica Neue”, Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif;
font-weight: bold;
text-decoration: none;
outline: none;
font-size: 13px;
padding: 8px 12px;
.goodreadsGiveawayWidgetEnterLink:hover {
color: #181818;
background-color: #F7F2ED;
border: 1px solid #AFAFAF;
text-decoration: none;
<h2 style=”margin: 0 0 10px !important; padding: 0 !important; font-style: italic; font-size: 20px; line-height: 20px; font-weight: normal; text-align: center; color: #555;”>
<a href=”” target=”_new”>Goodreads</a> Book Giveaway

<div style=”float: left;”>
<a href=”″><img alt=”Man of Clay by Victoria Osborne” title=”Man of Clay by Victoria Osborne” width=”100″ src=”×148-bcc042a9c91a29c1d680899eff700a03.png” /></a>

<div style=”margin: 0 0 0 110px !important; padding: 0 0 0 0 !important;”>
<h3 style=”margin: 0; padding: 0; font-size: 16px; line-height: 20px; font-weight: normal; font-style: normal;”>
<a href=”″>Man of Clay</a>
<h4 style=”margin: 0 0 10px; padding: 0; font-style: normal; font-weight: normal;”>
by <a style=”text-decoration: none;” href=””>Victoria Osborne</a>

<div class=”giveaway_details”>
Giveaway ends March 31, 2016.
See the <a style=”text-decoration: none;” href=”″>giveaway details</a>
at Goodreads.
<div style=”clear: both;”></div>
<a class=”goodreadsGiveawayWidgetEnterLink” href=”″>Enter Giveaway</a>

</div><script src=”″ type=”text/javascript” charset=”utf-8″></script>

EKTEK Goodreads Giveaway!!!!

It's Leadbeater's Possum awareness week March 28th - April 3rd 2016!

It’s Leadbeater’s Possum awareness week March 28th – April 3rd 2016!

When you win a copy of EKTEK through the Goodreads Giveaway – get in there – you will also win one of these extremely cute badges!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Ektek by Victoria Osborne


by Victoria Osborne

Giveaway ends March 31, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Waging Peace

At this time of year our thoughts turn to Peace and Love.

Anne Deveson wrote a book called Waging Peace. She’s thinking about waging peace. She’s thinking about Baruch Spinoza, who said, ‘Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.’

She’s thinking about Ariel Dorfman, who said peace was: ‘The deep well of truth of what we all want, each man, each woman, each child on this earth; that the small space that surrounds our fragile bodies be respected, that our right to some minimal territoriality or identity or autonomy be afforded recognition by those who have the power to smash and invade it.’

She’s thinking about Jane Mayer, who wrote an article called ‘Contract Sport: What did the Vice-President do for Halliburton?’  Halliburton, one of the largest oilfield corporations was awarded a US$7.7 billion contract (the only bidder). Dick Cheney, the ‘Vice’ President, won US$44 billion and retired with a US$36million severance package. Big money in 2000. Still big.

I’m thinking about the Americans bombing a hospital. In the December 2015 edition of ‘The Pulse’, the quarterly magazine of Medecins Sans Frontieres, Australia, the editorial is entitled ‘Even war has rules’. 42 dead.

MSF are calling for an independent inquiry.

MSF want combatants to follow the rules. As though it was sport. Is a war a game? What a revolting thought.

It’s more like a business.

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

If it’s a game, or even a business, FOLLOW THE RULES!

If it’s a game, pack up your bat and ball and go home.

If it’s a business, change.

Let’s think about Immanuel Kant who wrote Perpetual Peace: A philosophical text. Anne Deveson says that Kant believed that humans were evolving towards peace by embodying moral law through its institutions.

<iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>


Wage peace.

Cory Doctorow. Was here. Who knew?

The Wheeler Centre had an Interrobang. They invited some speakers to answer tricky questions. Cory Doctorow? Oh yeah. Book those tickets! Next day, the session is sold out!

But hey, when we got there – place half full – or half empty – depending on your point of view. Whaaaaa … ? We had friends who would have bought tickets. Wheelers Centre fail. Cory Doctorow is an important thinker of our age. More Melbournians needed to hear him. For those who missed out on this, and the other two sessions, let me attempt to sum up.

Doctorow’s a founding editor of Boing Boing and contributor to The Guardian, Wired and Publishers Weekly. He’s one of the founders of Electronic Frontier Foundation. And there’s his take on the Gordian knot that is copyright and DRM. His attitudes to Creative Commons is why my Ektek saga is currently available free of charge. Although, when chatting to him after the session (face-to-face banter!!) his comment, ‘Oh, yeah, you have to have something people want to steal,’ cut deep.

I’ve only read two of his novels – both provocative in their own ways.

Someone comes to town, Someone leaves town gives the reader the bizarre experience of characters coming in and out of focus due to constant name shift. You really do have to read it for yourself. Little Brother is one of those books written in six weeks that just drives the reader (ostensibly a young adult) through a world they need to know about. There’s now a sequel and plenty of other writing to explore.

Doctorow is from Ontario and his dad was a computer scientist. Cory grew up with one of the first connected terminals in his living room. He’s always had the internet in his life. He sees no difference between being in the world and being in the internet. The title of his conversation with Alan Brough was about destroying the internet before it destroys us. Of course, no one is advocating the destruction of the internet but Cory is suggesting we do have a good long hard look at it. Doctorow has long spoken about the dangers inherent in devices with cameras and microphones on your desk that may or may not be within your control. Do you want to be in charge of your computer or be controlled by state or corporate powers that can see your contacts, your searches and you? ‘Yes, Master’ or ‘I can’t let you do that, Dave.’

Doctorow is one of those fluent thinkers and activists who speak very quickly and think very widely so summing up the fifty odd minutes we spent in his presence is impossible. I’ll try.

One of his basic tenets involves disclosure. He likens the way people deal with information on the internet with that of alchemists in the Age of Darkness. That by non-disclosure, we lead into an elite of those who know and those who don’t know. (By chance I happened to hear a fascinating interview with John Le Carre, a spook of high intelligence, in which he comments that the UK went into Iraq as a result of those thinking they knew, knowing wrong. He also remarked that after the Cold War, it became obvious that the USA was always the greater power and that the entire stand-off was a construct by people looking for something to do with the arms they’d built.)

My son's signed kindle.

My son’s signed kindle.

Back with Cory, another of his tenets is around locked dependency. If you can’t open it, is it yours? If you can’t open it you can’t change it, can you. One of the clearest examples is John Deere tractors. The tractors can now carry technology that, as they move around paddocks, collect detailed data such as soil fecundity. This information is valuable to a techsavvy farmer. (You do know that behind every successful farmer is a partner working in town?) But, who else might like this info? What about uploading your priceless data to the cloud to share with corporations who might want to sell you things?  The John Deere agreement is with an organisation called Climate Corporation. From the New Yorker article about this corporation:

The mission statement, “To help all the world’s people and businesses manage and adapt to climate change,” is an explicit echo of Google’s sweeping promise to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Climate Corporation is an insurance agency. They insure farm land against extremes of climate brought on by climate change. And they’ve just been bought by MonsantoWhat about a seed company like Monsanto knowing all the specifics of your farmland? What could possibly go wrong?

Corey also spoke about diabetes data. Diabetes patients increasingly rely on technology to help communicate with doctors and to link with providers of their drugs. They can upload their personal information to the magic cloud; every detail from meals, to measurements of weight, blood sugars, amounts of insulin, wheres and whens … everything. Who owns this information? What do the patients do to protect it from people who might benefit from knowing more? Information. Keep it close or share it?

So there’s content, there’s software and there’s hardware and all those things might have locks at various levels. If a hacker is determined, they will break those locks or, even better, find a flaw that provides access. Once discovered, the flaw has to stay vulnerable, for it to be exploitable. So for spies, ‘no one but us’ – NOBUS – should know about the flaw so that only we can use it to gain access to the secret (commercial or otherwise). Clearly this makes the assumption that we are the only clever spies. (I say we because Australia’s deep connections with the USA are, of course, totally trustworthy. Mr Doctorow didn’t go into that.)

In summary, will we have access to a new Age of Enlightenment? Will everyone share everything or are there reasons to (and can you) keep your activities private?

And does the internet offer international democracy? Allow merit to shine through the obscurity? Maybe. For example, how does a cool band in Rwanda go viral?

<iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

Animal stories – hearts and souls

I begin (ironically) with a quote.

Only the Animals is an award-winning collection of short stories by Ceridwen Dovey.

Winning awards and getting into the front window of Readings means Success in Australia and, given the Animals in the title, a must read for me. I’ve been meaning to blog about this book for a while but I couldn’t because Anson Cameron‘s book was trapped in a cardboard box in storage. Stay with me, I mean well. Now freed, shelved and at home in the new house, Pepsi Bears is also an award-winning collection of short stories, which I need to consider while thinking about Only the Animals.

Only the Animals is a beautifully presented book. The cover is sparse grey with a grim domestic picture of radiated cats glowing green and streaming about a human couple made of some kind of modelling clay in a horrid kitchen. The slim line of the pale title font continues into the front pages and arrives at two illuminating quotes, one of which is: “On one side there is luminosity, trust, faith, the beauty of the earth; on the other side, darkness, doubt, unbelief, the cruelty of the earth, the capacity of people to do evil. When I write, the first side is true; when I do not the second is.” Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog. Portentous, no?

So, once in the door, forewarned, we see the collection is ironed, folded and separated out into time and place and souls of different animals.

There’s a lovely picture at the head of each story, based on seeing the animal of the moment in the stars. The first story is for a camel from 1892 and Henry Lawson and the camel tells ‘a good story about death in the wastelands’. The next, a story about a cat, opens with constellation and quotation, like a dramatic chord in preparation, decorating the mantle and introducing us to Collette, who apparently owned the cat of the story. Most of the stories have one or two such defining moments from the pens of others on the headstone and as we delve further into the stories we realise the quotes are a key. We’re hearing echoes of other writers through the sculptured stories. Collette stains the voice of her cat (mimicry? catticry?) and style of whimsy. Back to the first story, and yup, there’s the soul of Henry Lawson knocking on the table. Only the Animals is in fact a séance of dead writers – not only the animals!

The unseen energy drives the empty glass fast across the ages, chimpanzee followed by dog, followed by mussel, swerves relentlessly through bear and dolphin to end in parrot in 2006. “If nothing else, you could at least say she’d been perspicacious.” Certainly clever, witty and erudite, Dovey’s stories are wonderful creations. I read on, filled with admiration for the architecture, the structure of the tales, the clean organisation and the orderly manner these blocks of civilisation arise into an elegant edifice.

I had a similar experience when visiting the Victorian National Gallery to see one of the Top Arts exhibitions. As I wandered, seeing colourful sculptures and dramatic paintings, I turned a corner to face an extraordinary pencil drawing, larger than life, of some young person’s grandfather, done over the course of a year, in such incredible detail that one’s mind convulses with the effort, the concentration and devotion it must have taken to create that piece in the final year of school. And so I gazed at the Souls, glimpsing the homage and the heritage inherent, particularly evident in mussel’s soul of the beat poets (thinking well, I just don’t know enough, maybe there’s more fossils of interest embedded in the strata) and I yet I yearned for more, I longed to be, well, pushed, surprised, angered …

None of these cut-glass images etched by stars managed to lodge in my heart (they’re called souls not hearts after all) and I kept recalling a story called ‘A zebra in no-man’s land’, which could well have a place in this cosmology, from Pepsi Bears, the recently-shelved-in-my-new-house, award-winning collection of stories about animals. (Okay, shortlisted in the 2011 APA Book Design Awards – obviously another good-looking book!) But, you know, these stories have heart.

I don’t think Anson Cameron evoked so many writers or floated souls into his designs but he is certainly another witty human being who enjoys an earthiness alien to Ceridwen. There are stories in Pepsi Bears about shit and vengeance and a zebra accounting for a ceasefire in the First World War. Anson’s opening chord is: “In which the nature of mankind is cruelly illuminated by various beasts”.

I’m all for stories about animals – for animals that can read – although personally I find them an acquired taste. If you do not fancy reading either of these tomes, try one for yourself. Perhaps you too might find ‘luminosity, trust, faith, the beauty of the earth’. I encourage you to head to your favourite writing method, seek your muse and imagine what life might be like for another species. But take it easy, lest the construction of the cage stills the beating heart within.

The Signature of All Things – big story, big picture, big biggness

The Signature of All Things strides across centuries, across science and across the face of God. It details (and I mean, really details) the life of the father, the daughter and the Holy Angel. It looks at our relationship to nature in a learned, scientific light. It’s a book, it’s big and it’s by Elizabeth Gilbert.,28804,1733748_1733752_1735978,00.html,28804,1733748_1733752_1735978,00.html

But I wasn’t paying attention to the writer when I began because I was drawn to the reader. I listened to this behemoth on Audible books read by the delectable tones of Juliet Stevenson. Ah.

If you have never had the pleasure of being read to by Ms Stevenson, may I recommend you rush to Audible for your introductory book and plug your ears into anything at all, say for instance, Middlemarch or Persuasion. I could listen to Juliet read the phone book and herein lies the problem, because I began to wonder if indeed The Signature of All Things might not in fact be a bit of a phone book. Juliet’s mellifluous golden tones seeped into my mind like a pleasant dream but once in a while I would be jumped out of the loveliness and mentally exclaim, ‘What is this stuff?’

Like Joyce, Gilbert is heavy on the lists. It sometimes feels as though she’s deliberately setting out to write an enormous masterpiece, covering a great sprawling canvas, and therefore she must conjure all the things that pertain to the thought she has in mind at that moment, that circumstance, that idea, that shade, that currency, that minutiae, that detail, that nuance, that secondary motif, that other thing that just might resonate with some reader somewhere because of something a second cousin once said at a wedding where she wore a beautiful dark dress with a large floral print in pinks and leaves but her shoes were too tight and she got a blister on her heel that took days to fade away and MEANWHILE back in the real world you’re starting to wish Ms Gilbert had found a slightly sterner editor and that maybe Juliet is reading the phone book after all.

There’s no doubting Gilbert’s steady and erudite construction of sentences and, apart from slight Americanisms like ‘pinky’ and ‘route’ most notable toward the end of the book, the prose is indeed suggestive of Elliot. In fact, and this reveals more about my lack of current popular knowledge than anything about Gilbert, I didn’t know who she was. It wasn’t until some way into the work that I looked the woman up. Der. She’s quite wise really.,_Pray,_Love#/media/File:Eat,_Pray,_Love_%E2%80%93_Elizabeth_Gilbert,_2007.jpg,_Pray,_Love#/media/File:Eat,_Pray,_Love_%E2%80%93_Elizabeth_Gilbert,_2007.jpg

So I went and borrowed Eat Pray Love (in that order) from my local library. The strands of this memoir are the concerns of the main character, Alma, in Signature. The corporeal, the spiritual and the emotional. That is to say, All Things. A lot of people really like it, apparently, and you might want to watch the movie. I shan’t dwell on ELP except to say it is based on Gilbert’s private journals and acts as a kind of miasma or swamp of the mind from which might grow a mighty lotus blossom. That blossom might well be The Signature of All Things.

Signature is an extraordinary vision and it features many real life characters like Captain Cook, Joseph Banks and Darwin. It could be that the story is based on a real person. The idea is not so far-fetched after all. A female scientist joins Darwin and Wallace in examining the world and seeking answers. There’s nothing preposterous in that. Female thinkers have been, like Alma’s moss, quietly gathering science ever since records began. Many have disappeared. Perhaps Gilbert found an account or diary somewhere that kicked this giant opus off?

There is much to ponder in Signature. There is much, full stop, much of everything really. It’s big, I tell you. An amazing feat. Alma is big, her father is a titan, her husband is an angel. Her view of God is not singular. Ms Gilbert really likes numbers and the basic trinity is always present (as are other numerological games in both ELP and Signature). Gilbert is an intellectual, after all. However, God is not in the moss. Heaven is not within. Heaven is somewhere else.

You might like Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity. She describes the need to separate artists from their muse – genius comes from outside. (Like God!)

Humans are part of nature – and her discussion of the development of the theory of evolution is even-handed and I welcome her embrace of Wallace. Although Bill Bailey on the subject is probably slightly more amusing.

I’m sorry I can’t be more conclusive about The Signature of All Things. I do love hearing big books, especially read by Juliet. I did enjoy many parts of this enormous blossom, this mossy roll, but in the end it did feel unsatisfying. Did it go on too long? Did it start too early?

It is amazing. That is all. It is about All Things. That said, I do wonder if Gilbert has been in communication with George Elliot’s muse?

‘The Extinction Club’ by Robert Twigger – Bambi with history?

On the first night of our family reunion a few years ago, we gathered in a restaurant to clatter spoons. Our respected elder, in his late seventies, rose to address the gathering, leaned on his polished wooden shepherd’s staff, looked about the room and declaimed, with a gleeful grin, that as he was the alpha male present there was no doubt that everyone must listen to him. His few words of greeting included sincere commemorations to those no longer with us and urgent invocations for us to enjoy ourselves. And it was with great amusement and happiness that everyone did enjoy themselves with merry banter thereafter.

Young hands holder an elder's hand

In comparison, I recently heard of another successful family reunion, which had been opened by their ninety-three year old matriarch. She had looked about the room where four generations gathered and asked them all to speak in turn on the subject of ‘What I care for most.’ The memorable reunion was emotional, meaningful and honest.

Which reunion was best? Could the merry banter at our family reunion uphold the heartfelt encouragement to communicate with each other and recognise family ties or does only the serious and sincere carry weight into the future to improve our lives?

This is the sort of struggle faced by Robert Twigger in The Extinction Club, Penguin 2001, a deliberately exasperating, bitsy, read. Ostensibly a very, very funny travel book (says so on the cover) about Pere David deer, The Extinction Club also packs in some metaphysical meditations about old ideas in the form of books.

Deer standing in a park

The rare deer, also known as Milu, were saved from destruction in China’s Imperial Garden during the Boxer Rebellion of the 1900s and bought to Britain, to Woburn Abbey Safari Park, giving the author a thin excuse to muse on the nature of extinction as he plans the outline. ‘The obvious, possibly tabloid, über-theme [of the book] was extinction. OK, the concern for the deer would be an example of our fear of extinction which has mushroomed this century.’ (pg 29)

fun sign for Woburn

Twigger points out the idea of extinction arose with Darwin and,

‘ … it was just a question of time before the possibility of the extinction of the human species became a widespread idea. And when it did, the fact of the A-bomb and biowarfare simply made it more concrete, more tangible, the fear already in us. Making extinction a necessary part of life added a shadowy bleakness to the scientifically informed world view. The theoretical necessity of extinction leaves the world a little colder.’ (pg 49)

Atomic bomb over Nagasaki

Heavy stuff! But do not fear, Twigger does not tarry long in these murky depths, quickly uplifting the reader with amusing accounts of pathetic aimless research (look how everything is changing at the library) juxtaposed with the chunks of serious history supposedly resultant, his strange story of the Major’s club paying for a species of fish to become extinct in one blow and how his funny agent, Klaudia, gets on with the droll story of how to get this gosh darn book published any how!

Twigger’s drinking pal, the Novelist, is about to publish a successful book – how ironic – neatly contrasted by such questions as, ‘How does a book die? How does it become extinct? When nobody reads it any more? When nobody buys it any more? When libraries won’t stock it? When nobody remembers having read it?’ (pg 72) Clearly Twigger cares most about books, he is a writer after all, the essence of his desire to leave his mark on the world, to be discovered in the dusty piles of paper in the bookstalls of the threatened Ezbekiya Gardens

Fittingly, I found this very book in a secondhand book shop, one having to downsize, how suitable an evolution, look how these bookshops have to change! There in the dusty shelves were three different editions of The Extinction Club, leading one to assume the royalties may well have staved off extinction for this author for some time. I suppose he gets to sit on panels in Writers’ Festivals with names like, ‘Animals or Us?’ or ‘Does Extinction have a lighter side?’ I imagine he might even wear his sleeveless yellow jumper as he explains his frustrated attempts to write a serious book (who would read it any way?) but, in his modest self-effacing way, had to hand in something, anything, against the already-spent advance. (Hilarious!)

For those of us not in touch with the publishing world, this throwaway book about books is more annoying than revelatory. How the hell does such blatant carelessness get published? There are some moments where a great clanking gear change causes the badinage to clarify into powerful words yearning to be read with seriousness but mostly Robert Twigger clearly struggles with the big picture and, unfortunately, it appears the struggle wins.

‘The wild places are just wastegrounds now, interesting enough as places to play if you are a child, or in need of a holiday. They don’t function as wild places any more, not unless you are careless and forget your radio beacon and satellite phone.’ (pg 175)

Do we read this with recognition or with dismay?

‘In many ways the individual is more at risk now than he has ever been. His ability to think is overwhelmed by useless noise. He is encouraged to become a passive consumer, supporter, viewer. He has to go outside the mainstream to find opportunities for his inner powers of self-reliance to develop.’ (pg 168)

Is this about the writer or the reader? We know the writer has undergone a survival course for fun but he is the man finding his passive consumption in the form of his beloved books after all and he is the man making a lot of unnecessary noise around his thoughts.

‘All along, it is not animals that have been most at risk, but ourselves, our innermost selves.’ (pg 169)

Again, who is the line for? And, what are humans if not animals?

Twigger’s serious statements about how we should live and the risks we face are buried in silly streams about books and babies, much as all our discussions about changing the tide of human destruction founder on day-to-day having to make a living in the city.

When working on a puppet show about endangered species, It’s not the end of the world, (Polyglot Puppets 1995-6) my husband urged a funny sheep character who would (sidesplittingly) try to prevent her inevitable death by being officially declared endangered. It probably would have fitted in well to our story line about endangered stringbags but I was trying to be sincere and lucid with a tight narrative line. Twigger would have agreed with my husband that a show about extinction should be vaudeville; skits, bits and pieces, highs and lows. It’s extinction people! Fun! Danger! Giggles! Death! Farts! Overpopulation! Pollution! Hilarious!

At the end of The Extinction Club, in an exposed stab at a happy ending, the sparrows seem to be returning to his garden, the booksellers have recreated his beloved Ezbekiya Gardens book market and his yellow jumper is returned from Woburn Abbey where the author stayed to see the Pere David deer cull. (Apparently it’s best to kill an endangered creature when there’s too many of them.)

Woburn Abbey

Or maybe not, as Twigger categorically denies any firm relationship with the truth because that’s light-hearted and ironic and the best way to deal with a difficult subject that sticks in the craw like a piece of plastic in an endangered albatross chick.

On discovering the returned Ezbekiya Gardens book market Twigger says,

‘If the secondhand book market still existed, it meant far more than just being able to buy cheap first editions of Victor Hugo. It meant that something I cared for had not become extinct.

The great auk, the passenger pigeon, the dodo, that snail from the Pacific, those fish the Major poisoned—I had to admit that my concern was virtually nil. My concern was simply the result of a conventional upbringing, nothing more. Even the fact that the Milu had survived rather than being killed by the starving relief battalions, including a starving Grandpa Tom, meant little to more to me than a good yarn; the deer did, of course, look nice at Woburn, but care? Really care? About a few animals, when the WORLD was disappearing?’ (pg 177)

man searching old books

So, imagine we’re at a family reunion thirty years hence. I ask you to speak on the subject of ‘What you care about most?’

What do you say? Are you light-hearted? Playing to the audience, bumbling, stumbling, getting laffs and getting your books read?

Or are you serious?