Category Archives: Education



One of the great problems about Shakespeare, and building up a realistic and factually correct picture of Southwark too, where his brother Edmund died, is working with such little evidence. That highly eccentric American couple, the Wallaces, came up with another piece in the jigsaw when, after reading through 5 million documents, they unearthed a court case involving Mary Mounjoy and Stephen Bellot, relating to Shakespeare lodging with the tirer, the theatrical wigmaker, Christopher Mountjoy on Silver Street, near the Criplegate. It saw Shakespeare giving evidence in court over the question of a promised and unpaid dowry to Bellot, where Shakespeare seems to have helped the couple plight their troth but to have withdrawn his testimony, saying he coud not remember the sum, probably proving an ultimate loyalty to Christopher Mountjoy. There were also all kinds of sexual shenanigans in the Mountjoy household, and Mountjoy was marked down by the judge as a rather disreputable character, adding the prick of scandal to the Shakespeare story. That tale also narrows the circle of Shakespeare’s intimates and ties him to the co-author of Pericles, the very unpleasant George Wilkins. Wilkins owned a tavern brothel on the corner of Turnmill and Cowcross ‘streets’, then outside London Wall and in a semi rural area in developing London. He was had up in court repeatedly for violence against women, including kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach and stamping on another, perhaps two of his working girls. When Stephen Bellot and Mary Mountjoy, whose mother was also called Mary, were pursuing their own love affair they had gone to stay in Wilkins’ tavern. It adds great interest to the brothel element so deep in Pericles, based on John Gower’s Confessio Amantis.

I think a much neglected story though is the other time Shakespeare had a run in with the law, in November 1596, when he was accused, with two mysterious women, Dorothy Soeur and Anne Lee, along with Sir Francis Langley, of ‘Murder and Affray’ by the local Surrey Sherrif Sir William Gardiner. It was standard legal language and had come out of a long standing tussle between Langley and Gardiner, who Langley had called ‘a perjured knave’ in a tavern up in Croyden. At the time Edmund was sixteen, whether he was in Stratford or London, quite the age to pursue a player’s career. To add to the Shakespeare presence in London rather than Stratford their brother Gilbert was a haberdasher for a time in St Bride’s, off Fleet Street. Langley of course was a highly succesful and rather disreputable Algener, who put official stamps on cloth bails to establish their quality and clearly benefited from seizing goods and the potential for bribery too. Who also got his title by buying the manor of Paris Gardens, that third little Liberty along the river Thames in Southwark, walking away from big St Saviour’s church, through The Clink and Bankside. He was fined by the city authorities for not keeping up the Manor properly, probably sitting in the Compter court in old St Margaret’s Church, that had been dissolved sixty years before, and whose Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption had once owned The Vine tavern where Edmund died. Langley took the commissioners out to lunch, but at least they kept their integrity by fining him again the following year.

Langely of course also built the Swan theatre in Paris Gardens in 1595 to cash in on the growing theatre trade that Henslowe’s Rose had well established on nearby Maid Lane, which was much more splendid and silvered on the outside. Both young Ben Jonson and Shakespeare were involved with Langely and the Swan then, two years before Shakespeare and the Burbage brothers decided or were forced to take down the oldest permanent London theatre, ‘The Theatre’, up in the Shoreditch. When the lease on Giles’s Alan’s land ran out and he tried to put up the price, so the players transported the valuable wood and their ‘house’ across the water. The newly named Lord Chamberlains Men used it to build the immortal Globe Theatre on Maid Lane, in the Liberty of Bankside, where The Vine tavern also stood. Just up the way from the Rose and ‘forced out of a Marish’, as Ben Jonson wrote in The Execration Against Vulcan. He also described the Globe as ‘The Fort to the whole Parish”. It is the Swan though that had the most interesting and unhappy fate of all the London theatres, because it never really succeeded, certainly after 1597, was sold on by Langley, who died in 1601, and would later be described as being very decayed and ‘hanging down its head, like a dying Swan’. Both the Rose, closed by 1605, and the Swan suffered from the success of The Globe.

But what happened that day when Langley and Shakespeare were caught up in an incident with Dorothy Seour and Anne Lee in November 1596 and who were they? As Horton wrote in his fascinating book on the case, alongside his idea about Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor of 1597 being a satire of the deeply unpleasant Sir William Gardiner, who specialised in extortion, it is lovely to see Shakespeare giving him a piece of his mind, or perhaps even the glint of his sword. But why are those two women named and were they having some kind of merry party in a more colourful establishment in Paris Gardens, when an argument broke out? Of course the stewes ran along the river front in neighbouring Bankside, but Paris Gardens was certainly a brothel district too, that housed the famous Cardinal’s Hat, right next door to where the modern Globe reconstruction stands – not on its original site in Bankside, though two minutes walk away. It is very probable that the infamous Holland’s Leaguer, and there is still a Holland Street there, to testify to the influx of Dutch immigrants into the district, came to be in the moated manor house of Paris Gardens. In the reformation period especially remember that Sir names too, so often emerging from trades like Baker, Fletcher, Smith, Thatcher and so on, were really beginning to be defined, partly in the institutionalisation of records and us all. Take for instance the name of one of the carpenters working at St Margaret’s Church 100 years before, under the reign of Henry VI, who is simply called ‘Peter of the Bridge’. The bridge being great London Bridge, the only crossing point over the river into the City then. The Holland clan though, originally a Dutch family, certainly turn up elsewhere as being a kind of London crime family, much involved in prostitution but then business seemed to have involved a lot of people in crime. It is interesting Shakespeare puts a John Holland in Henry VI, as one of the less appealing rebels engaged in Cade’s Revolt. As for Dorothy Soeur and Anne Lee though, I found several Soeur’s in the Token Books from St Saviour’s relating to Paris Gardens. The name is obviously from the French for Sister, but whether that has a religious echo too, or was just a common emergence of a Sirname, I don’t know. Meanwhile of course one of the strongest comments on Paris Gardens, where the Royal Barge house also stood, that came to be owned by Philip Henslowe, in a city where literally everything was franchised, also comes from Ben Jonson, who described Paris Garden’s as ‘that accursed ground.’ There will be another blog on the intriguing figure of Kate Arden, Jonson specifically mentions, and also on who those ‘Sister’s’ are Jonson mentions going to investigate the supposed crime when the Globe burnt down in 1614, but was quickly rebuilt.

Don’t tar anyone, and especially not Shakespeare, with that brush of scandal or rumour, that had so tainted his near exact contemporary and great inspiration Christopher Marlowe. Who schoolboys still fancy was a brothel creeping carouser, not to mention a spy, who ‘died in a tavern brawl’. Francis Meres’ book of 1598, which first mentions Shakespeare as the most important writer of his day, and is critical for dating, specifically alludes to Marlowe’s unhappy fate, contemptuously too in the light of Marlowe’s atheism, as Shakespeare alludes to him in As You Like It, though in a very different voice, and speaking of “a great reckoning in a little room’. That little room was most likely neither a tavern nor a brothel though,but a far more respectable place, one of the many houses across London that offered bed, food and drink. It was in Deptford, where the Marine docks were, and belonged to Eleanor Bull. But there Marlowe was killed by three men who were certainly agents of Francis Walsingham: Apparently over the ‘reckoning’, the bill, but most likely in a semi authorised hit, related to the rivalry between Walter Raleigh and The Earl of Essex, the faked Dutch Church Libels that had been pinned up on the Broadgate wall attacking foreigners, in a UKIP style frenzy, and both Marlowe’s muted atheism and his possession of banned books. Marlowe’s spying credentials were pretty obvious when you remember he went to Cambridge (and the Master of his College would end up hanging himself by his britches) and was at one point in Flanders investigating Counterfeit coin. His murder clearly had an enormous effect on Shakespeare, and his wariness ever after of the public eye, or the disgrace of fortune and men’s eyes, that could be so fatal in Tudor England. Another indication that Shakespeare’s involvement with those two woman probably wasn’t lubricious either though is the fact that in his book on the doctor and astrologer Simon Foreman AL Rowse specifically names Anne Lee as the sister of Sir William Motson, who made a name in the navy.

Yet the stamp and thrill of intrigue certainly surrounds that court case too, and most especially the extraordinary events that unfolded in the coming year, 1597. Just follow the threads. Sir William Gardiner was clearly trying to bring disgrace on a local rival, Francis Langley, whose playhouse the next year staged ‘The Isle of Dogges’. That lost play co-authored by Jonson and Thomas Nashe satirised Elizabeth I’s palace on the Isle of Dogs, where Canary Wharf now stands over the water, or rather her blood hound courtiers. It saw the Swan closed, along with all the theatres that summer of 1597, for the writer’s ‘lewd and seditious’ work. Nashe, who later dismissed the play as an ’embryo’, fled London, and ‘our Tom’ is affectionately mentioned in Meres’ book early next year too as soon to be welcomed back ‘to Rome’, namely the favour of the court and London. By then the hoo-ha was blowing over. Jonson, along with two fellow actors at the Swan, were arrested and put in the Marshalsea prison on Long Southwarke for a couple of months. Francis Langely alone was denied a licence for The Swan though, when the theatres reopened, and though it was known for plays, and staged sword fights and bouts of extemporary verse too, it never really took off and within four years Langely was dead.

But the plot thickens when you discover that in the Marshalsea Ben Jonson was interviewed by Robert Poley, who was a notorious agent of Walsingham’s and one of the three men in that room in Deptford with Marlowe. It was a man called Nicholas Skeres who had stabbed Marlowe in the right eye. Then consider the fact that Langley was also caught up in a case involving a fenced diamond, which reached up to and displeased the Privy Council itself. Also that it is very likely that the order to close the theatres, not because of sedition but the general threat of plague, came down before any mention of sedition, or the actors’ arrest in mid summer. Was the Swan’s closure then and the scandal of that year in fact somehow drummed up and related to the conflict between Gardiner and Langely, by extension Shakespeare, jostling for local influence, in a climate where the control of the theatres was becoming more and more political? Driven too by the kind of cloak and dagger double-dealing, extortion and blackmail common to spies that might well involve fenced diamonds too and which Walsingham’s spy network constantly engaged in, especially his hired men in that little room. Was the report to the Privy Council of a seditious play much more about underhand efforts to hobble Langley altogether, by him, or someone else, including the ubiquitous and connected Phillip Henslowe? That year would certainly echo very darkly through Ben Jonson’s life, who in 1598 would kill his fellow player Gabriel Spenser in a duel on the Hogsmeade, on the edge of Hoxton. He pleaded Benefit of Clergy and was only branded on the thumb, although Spenser started it. But Gabriel Spenser had been one of the players performing the Isle of Dogges at the Swan and one of the three actors, including Robert Shaa, imprisoned in the Marshalsea too. It and the fate of the Swan, rather than any high moral concern with the seemier side of the little Liberty uncharacteristic of Jonson, is much more likely to be the reason he would so strongly label Paris Gardens ‘that accursed ground’ in The Execration Against Vulcan.

But now try to fit Shakespeare back into the jigsaw. The years 1596 to 1599 were certainly monumental in his life and career and by extension perhaps Edmund’s too. In 1596, apart from that court case over an incident with Langley, Dorothy Soeur and Anne Lee, his only son Hamnet had died in Stratford at the age of 11. The next year, as well as writing The Merry Wives of Windsor for the inauguration of their new patron George Carey to The Order of The Garter, the obviously by now highly successful and relatively affluent Shakespeare would buy the second biggest house in Stratford, New Place, although for the comparitively modest sum of £60. Meanwhile, though his plays had already played at The Theatre, The Curtain and Henslowe’s Rose on Maid Lane, Shakespeare was clearly involved with the likes of Jonson and Langley at the Swan in Southwark, as the case proves. That they were trying to form an independent company is suggested from the fact that several of the Henslowe’s players were accused of breaking their contracts for him, and later went back to perform for The Admiral’s Men. Meanwhile Shakespeare and the Burbages must have known that the lease on the land on which The Theatre stood north of the river and city would soon run out, rather than quite the sudden drama someone like James Shapiro describes in his excellent though perhaps too literal book ‘1599’. So was Shakespeare already looking for an independent venue in 1597, where he could lead his company to new heights, and also own the plays and take the house receipts, in a way that Henslowe’s writers and actors never did? Shakespeare’s presence in his own house is hugely important to his swelling confidence and authority. The events of summer 1597 clearly blackened the appeal of the Swan and Paris Gardens though, and just over a year later, in the spring of 1599, the new Globe theatre went up in Bankside instead, on the southern edge of marshy Maid Lane. Almost simultaneously Henslowe, whose diary is filled with the rivalry between his Admiral’s Men and The Lord Chamberlain’s later-to-be King’s Men, saw the lie of the land and rather than trying to compete directly in Southwark built the Fortune Theatre, following the Globe’s design, on Golden Lane north of the river. He would not really ‘return’ either, though he always lived in Southwark by the Church at ‘The Bell’ on Clink Street, until Shakespeare had retreated to Stratford after 1612, when Henslowe built The Hope, opposite The Globe on Maid Lane, in 1614.

The whole saga, along with that celebrated falling out with an original Globe sharer, the bawdy clown Will Kempe, who would later call Shakespeare a ‘shakes rags’ in print, highlights the difficulties and rewards of succeeding in the early theatre business, but also to me an underestimated conflict between Shakespeare and that most prominent Southwark man, Phillip Henslowe. Of course Ned Alleyn’s wife’s famous letter about the return of the players company safely to London after another bout of plague testifies to the closeness of those original actors and companies, while both Shakespeare and Henslowe both became Grooms of the Chamber under James I. But a closeness that could also have a very violent side, like Jonson’s duel with Spenser. Shakespeare was anything but the Puritan, divided self or not, inhabiting a world that was generally so lusty and lubricious, and much was about both independence and money. But it is hard to believe the kind of mind that penned Rosalind in As You Like It, or wrestled with the corruption of brothels in Pericles, described by the players as ‘not debauched’, could have much approved of that Warden of St Saviours, Master of The Game, Keeper of The Royal Barge House and major Southwark landlord, Henslowe. But of that more to come too.

David Clement-Davies 10 January 2015

For writers in the Sixteenth Century it was hard to survive, books and plays often supported by private donations. We seem to have returned to that time, in some ways, so please realise that the research on Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark represents two years of unpaid work.  If you enjoy these blogs then and can afford to support Phoenix Ark Press, please donate below.  Many thanks.


The picture is the 1595 sketch of The Swan Theatre in Paris Gardens, closed in the summer of 1597, around the staging of The Isle of Dogges and denied a licence.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Education, London, Uncategorized



Happy New Year everyone and much hope for 2015, but a special toast today to the writer CJ Sansom and his wonderful Shardlake detective stories.  Set under Henry VIII and covering the exploits of the hunchback lawyer, Mathew Shardlake, that sane, compassionate practitioner in the Court of Request at Lincoln’s Inn and ever dealing with the harm of religion, Sansom’s books are utterly convincing and totally compelling too, with all the skill of a good detective yarn, mixed in with a very serious attempt to recreate the living history of the period, with a serious approach to the vicious realities of Tudor politics. Hence his books are most fascinating for his meticulous recreation of Tudor London, both in terms of topography and social structures.

It was something Phoenix Ark had to try to do engaging in the unique work here on William Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund, who died in the freezing winter of 1607, at the age of only 27, and in obviously tragic circumstances too, only four months after his infant son had died, on the edges of the city.  It was in the same year that successful Shakespeare, now a ‘gentlemen’ from a grant of arms that had caused a little fracas at The College of Heralds, had married his favorite daughter Suzanna to the herbalist John Hall in his home town of Stratford. It was also the year of the suppression of ale drives in Bath and Wells by the Puritans, the performing of Hamlet by the sailors on the East Indian ship The Red Dragon, off the coast of Sierra Leone, and of the Midland Riots against the enclosures of common land too, that came close to Stratford in the month of Suzanna’s wedding.

There are many potential clues to the effect that year had on Shakespeare, not least in the play Pericles, where the hero, dealing with the riddle of incest that haunts the play, presents a crest represented by a branch that only flowers at the top.  It is very hard not to see that as a clue to the dilemma Shakespeare faced about his own status, especially in relation to that family tragedy,  since his youngest brother’s infant baby was marked down in the records by a church hand as ‘baseborn’. Many of Shakespeare’s ‘romances’ after that are concerned with themes of art’s power to achieve restoration and reconciliation, much involved with the theme of families. Edmund was buried in the dominating Southwark Church, St Saviours, now Southwark Cathedral, at a hefty cost of twenty shillings and with ‘a forenoon toll of the great bell”.

The joy of reading Sansom, although it is only in HeartStone that he begins to touch on the theme of players and the theatres, and the first permanent wooden theatre, ‘The Theatre’ in the Shoreditch, did not go up until 1575 in the reign of Elizabeth I, is his scholarly mapping of both time and place, that echoes the difficulty of seeing into that period through the records. Sansom is meticulous, although never letting it swamp the thrilling narrative, and it’s wonderful to retake a journey with him, even if discoveries here happened 50 years later. Those discoveries, although not including the place Edmund was probably staying in the Winter of 1607, The Vine tavern in Southwark, revealed that tavern was owned by Edward Hunte esquire and had once been part of the land rights, granted under Henry VI, of a local religious fraternity called The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption. Their church was St Margaret’s, right on Long Southwark, effectively today’s Borough High Street, that crossed old London bridge and was the major Southern gateway into the City of London. It’s highly Catholic traditions, and the Church itself, were suppressed at the Reformation, it became a Comptor prison, a tavern that features in Hogarth’s painting of Southwark Fair and then it became the town hall. Today it is a Slug and Lettuce bar and only a little plaque on the wall remembers the Norman church that had such an astonishing history.

Part of that history was the betrayal inside the church of the Kentish rebel Jack Cade, despite the promise of pardon, under Henry VI, by the King’s chancellor and Bishop of Winchester William Waynfleete, whose huge tomb still decks Winchester Cathedral, alongside that ‘great’ Prince of The Church pilloried in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Henry Beaufort.  I am sure it would thrill CJ Sansom to pour over the Tudor records of St Margaret’s in The London Metropolitan Archives, much as they are just effectively accounts, and find proof of payments to ‘pleyers’ as far back as the mid fifteen century, both on St Margaret’s and St Lucy’s days, as well as Hoe and then Hop Mondays, in a vital beer making district.  St Margaret was of course the patron Saint of the little Church, but St Lucy’s day is now a festival honoured by Catholics on, I think, the 13th December.  The problem being that it was then the shortest day of the year, as John Donne’s poem ‘A Nocturnal on St Lucy’ proves.  Namely the Winter Solstice, and an especially Northern European festival, in an area of a great influx of ‘aliens, foreigners and strangers’ according to the antiquarian John Stowe, especially Flemings and Dutch.  The Soltice now falls on the 21/22nd of December,  we celebrated this year with dinner, but it was the new Gregorian Calendar that had been instituted by the Pope (and though more accurate was not taken up in Reformation England for another two hundred years) that made a mismatch in day calculations by as much as ten days. That ten day gap would explain the difference between the modern dating of St Lucy’s day and John Donne’s appreciation of his own times and a celebration that has deeply pagan roots and in Sweden is marked by maidens were wreath’s of flaming candles on their heads. Remember of course that Hamlet’s great spiritual and intellectual dilemma and struggle, in the murderous court of Denmark and Elsinore, is marked with the line ‘the time is out of joint, of cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.’ Sansom’s books superbly capture how seismic those times were for the modern world, so much made out of Tudor London, and how much they put the human out of joint.

St Lucy’s day was one of the little clues that lit the magic lantern of the past then, in such a fascinating and troubled time, and such an intimate London district too. London was of course tiny in comparison to now and very rural too. Sansom’s masterful sense of fact and history does it even more, bringing an entire world to life and with a deep sense for real history.  The work on Edmund Shakespeare and London here has never been properly set down, though pinched by someone without an accreditation, who got their book into the Huffington Post bestseller lists.   It sits in the posts here and in eight notebooks now in Hampshire.  Even better then that the crackling novel now underway, HeartStone, takes Shardlake to Hampshire and Portsmouth during possible French invasion. There has been no great revelation about what Edmund Shakespeare, a player in London too, although in none of the extant lists or the First Folio, was like. Nor about the woman he sired a doomed child with up in the Morefields and buried in Cripplegate, near Shakespeare’s temporary lodgings on Silver Street.  Yet there have both been many significant echoes of Shakespeare the man and writer, from Pericles to that crucial year in his own family life, as well as important links in the historical topography of Southwark.  Sansom’s mastery only gets the juices flowing to try again then. So a toast to him and a huge recommendation to follow the adventures of the Shardlake books. Happy New Year.



Filed under Adult Fiction, Books, Education, London


IMG_0069 (2)

The island, she won’t let you go,” whispered the hazel-eyed local on Corfu’s Agios Gordios beach, on the West Coast of my magic isle. She told me about her struggle and satisfaction in becoming a tourist rep, the legend of Nausicaa finding naked Odysseus here, washed up in the surf, and noticed the Disk of Phaestos hanging around my neck – Crete’s un-deciphered Linear B. I had bought it in my favourite artisan shop in Corfu town, where I get charming old postcards too. Then I’d been upset when it had tarnished in the bath and had taken it back to complain. “Life is never straight, my friend” the owner had twinkled nomicly, trying to convince me it made a better story too, as he assured me it was Stirling Silver, that very British hallmark. I was pleased above all that I hadn’t been lied to by him or been made a fool of either.

On Agios Gordios, this sudden Nausicaa and I joked about life, the real island of Corfu, ‘mad and wild’ Corfeats (according to other Greeks) and paradises naturally lost, or sometimes won again. If Corfu really was Homeric Scheria, at Thucydides claimed, home to those westernmost Phoenicians too, and so perhaps that link with the teacher of Zeno, Parmenides, she plays the strangest role in his rebirth and journey home. A symbol of half unrequited love, perhaps half mother figure, so much so one British scholar remarked that Nausicaa’s beach encounter and laundry scene is so realistic it meant that blind Homer was really a woman. Then the translations of Linear A on Crete turned out to be a laundry list! On Scheria cunning Odysseus, ship wrecked by Poseidon for tricking and blinding his one-eyed son Polyphemus, had to penetrate the palace of Nausicaa’s father, to get help, or breach what Wikipedia so anachronistically calls its magical ‘security systems’.

Since life is a beach though, what could be more magical then than to drink cold beer in the golden October sun, to swim in crystal waters but abandon some of the cliches too, as time and contact help me really experience a place. It has been a wonderful five weeks writing Dragon In The Post here, living in my rented house on Paradise Island, with its gentle garden, a place of recent barbecues and a new Dutch friend who was born here picking garden herbs for the marinade. So it was a bit of a shock to discover time rushing on, as ever, like Chronos eating his own children. The little ferry to Vidos from Corfu port has already stopped running, after three days of very heavy rains and gloomy skies. The Liston arcade in Corfu town still lights up and throbs at night, and the tourist shops bristle in the day, the electric evenings too, as a Maestre, a masterful Northerly wind, sweeps in to dispel the clouds around the great Venetian fort and the 18th century shuttered houses. But the season here is definitely winding to a pleasant autumnal close. Winter threatens in the falling leaves, the coming browns, the cooling airs, the death of each year’s life, but with something far less threatening than England and home.

On Agios Gordios we went swimming together at sunset in front of that burning red fire disk of exploding Hydrogen and Helium, so far beyond the real horizon, seemingly dissolving into a near-whispering, wine-dark sea. The bay held us like a friend, as the slanting afternoon sun painted our skins more golden and that renewed clarity of low afternoon light made everything sharp and real and very fresh and beautiful indeed. It picked out the shape of ‘Buddha Rock’ too, lying on his back on a nearby islet, beyond the Black Rocks, that to me looks more like a jolly Norwegian Troll, with a gigantic, bulbous nose. Then something of the ancient Gods descended, and light and sea and dying sun-disc became a filmy one.

The water does feel different suddenly, like warm silk, below the vaulting Cypresses climbing the slopes like markers to the island’s vigour, and as you stand in the sea, looking back at the hills, smiling or laughing, opening your arms, who would want her to let you go? The generous rains are the cause, and Corfu’s miracle micro climate, although with 10-15 days solid rain in September, it has not exactly been the perfect season. I’ve seen more of Corfu than I ever did last year though, swapping a battered bicycle that once kept me fitter for a sharp-engined white Mercedes (thanks to a free Airport upgrade, although with a struggle). So doing far more of the winding mountain roads, to Halikounas, Sinarades or Paliokastritsa, with its beetling Castello St Angelo and plunging, impossibly turquoise blues. Corfu always gives you a newly inspiring vista and opens your heart and mind, whenever you get locked too much inside yourself. “Oh, think twice, it’s just another day in Paradise” beats the Phil Collins song incessantly from Corfu Radio, of course, with its warning about forgetting other people’s problems. No, sorry, not at the moment.

It was driving up to a beer festival in Arillas in the North West this weekend though that I got to see much more of the ‘interior’ too – Those ever fascinating twisting, witch-hair olive groves, tipping down the slopes into mysteries of cool shade, the lifting massifs of hills, a sudden plain rich with wildflowers, pomegranate trees and pools of yellow sunlight, a flock of very smelly goats and, of course, among such lush vegetation, God-tall Cyprus trees everywhere, like perky sentinels, or officers of the watch. “Do you know their sex?” whispered someone in my garden, with a wink, as if introducing me to some great life secret, and of course the tall, straight ones are boys and the rounded, shorter, pear-like ones are girls. It’s all quite simple really.

I prodded my new friend on Agios Gordios and impressed her talking not about natural Phallic symbols, but the Omphalos, the World Navel and so the belly button. Also a time marker at ancient Delphi, once centre of the ‘known’ and imagined, where those weird women sat on their tripods, breathing in natural hallucinogenic vapours and whispering impossible oracles, or riddling warnings! She countered with talk of columns and the light on Delos, where the place seems to give birth to light itself. Perhaps then, while I learnt her real names are a feminized mix of the ever-present Orthodox Saint here and anti-Turkish intercessor Saint Spiridon and Alexander himself, such a green and fecund isle is an eternal antidote to that superstitious Greek association of Cyprus trees with death, misfortune and graveyards, like the sound of Scop’s Owls hooting in the night.

They are superstitions and legends much explored in the novel I’ve been reading here too, by Sofka Zinovieff, The House On Paradise Street. It is not a masterpiece, no Homer, with little of the literary panache or indeed sparkling charm of a Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but it is compelling and more importantly valuable. In solid prose it moves between the present, especially that moment of recent Greek ‘crisis’ of 2008, where many worlds seemed to fall apart, and the Occupation by the Nazis, until 1942. Then the bitter tragedy of the Greek Civil War, through the dictatorship of The Colonels too. They could certainly make a far better film of it than that atrocious Americanisation of Captain Corelli with Nicholas Cage. Zinovieff writes like a journalist discovering fiction, which I believe she is, and with that name but also an agent in London, you wonder if English is her first language. She is married to a Greek and has two children. In a sense it is always a story somehow in exile from itself, seeking its own heart, but it is most fascinating both in providing a foreigner’s eye and experience too, with the detail of a tour guide and travel writer, sometimes a touch of the poet, and for its discussion of the British legacy too.

On Corfu they still play cricket!” is the patriotic hero Nikitas’s dismissive quip that references this island in the novel. Nikitas’s sudden death provokes the historical investigation by Antigone his mother, an exile to Soviet and then modern Super Capitalist and ‘Cowboy’ Moscow, forced to abandon him to her sister as a baby, and his English wife Maud, bringing up their children in the anguished environment of student riots and the modern ‘Crisis’ in Athens, while coping with death, loss, age and decay that springs out so suddenly in everyone’s little life. The novel moves chapter by chapter between their competing narratives and one of its biggest flaws is that as such it internalizes none of its male protagonists, perhaps men are the book’s real Greek mystery and threat, but also creates few characters you can really love and so passionately identify with.

Its two central stings in the tale, most clever in the use of the seeming acronym ‘Wasp’ to reference those endless political groups from ELAS to PASOC, and least emotionally satisfying in the revelation over the British protagonist Johnny’s real human love affair, could have been far better handled dramatically. Meaning their power, outrage or beauty are not sought out from within for the reader and so lose effect. Yet they sustain the action and the themes and help a book approach depth and sometimes passion too, if, and precisely because of it’s dark themes, it is perhaps an attempt to avoid passion and get at fact and clarity in recording events many don’t know about. “Passion,” sparkled the girl on Agios Gordios, “That’s what Greeks are.” Meanwhile a book relayed the story of the brave women of Souli opposite Corfu dancing to their deaths in 1803, rather than surrendering to the Turks, or the 400 pleats in the traditional costumes of freedom fighters to mark every year of Ottoman occupation, as it reminds you that passion also brings a talent for tragedy.

I felt peculiarly British then as I saw them playing Cricket the other day in white flannels on the green in front of the Liston and the beautiful Archaeological Museum in Corfu town. “Pakistanis” observed a Greek friend though, with more than a hint of that schadenfreude that sometimes brands all Albanians too, and which is far more prevalent, and redolent with a threat that you can’t feel on Britain’s little island, so much closer to that real fault line of modern Europe; Turkey and the Bosphorous. That evening we listened to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here in the tiny Time Machine bar, then of course I saw the headline about UKIP’s victory back in the UK and its effect on the Tory Party and remembered the threat of atavism or real economic and cultural conflict is spreading everywhere.

That bar was part of the delight of getting to know Corfeats and a place though. Like tea and backlava with my friend and a young mathematician and Wikipedia guru opposite the Cafe Bristol. Or a game of ‘Gringlish’ and 1980’s Trivial Pursuit in my friend’s half built house with a view, as a storm fired lightening bolts across the bay, and too much booze after supper in my favourite restaurant here, Stimati in the village of Viros. There Spiros deals with his talent and ache as an artist by covering the walls with paintings bright with those ‘Iconic’ or primary Byzantine colours, although unfolding erotic Jungian dreamscapes, instead of God, in between the cooking. While his Scots wife Margaret bustles through with efficient practicality, stopping to discuss Scottish Independence, or to share some clear-eyed jokes and fun.

As for things being not quite cricket, or perhaps exactly Imperial Cricket, down in Corfu town I had noticed how I had noticed several young Pakistani players with surprise too, since this is what equates to a National Greek Cricket team. As the odd African peddles watches on the beaches, or there are so many cheap China stores here. Meanwhile a vastly tall, aging Greek Heavy-Metal hippy, with an Archbishop Makarios beard the length of a shaggy dog story, begs defiantly among the pretty cobbles and the wealthy trippers in the Old Town. Thankfully Corfu is no island to embrace the likes of Golden Dawn though, except perhaps in humorous talk of Independence for Corfu itself. Then, with its highly successful tourist industry and relative wealth, including a deal of British ownership, nor has it faced quite the hardships on the mainland. Despite complaints about sudden house taxes imposed, more than temporarily too, stories of local graft among doctors, to plump the Middle Classes, or that eternal accusation of political corruption at the top in Athens. More than that though, however bad things get, Corfu has an expansion and generosity that is in the landscape itself.

The British legacy is of course very strong on Corfu, the map of which looks a bit like Britain turned upside down. Not only with the cricket, but Prince Phillip having been born at Mon Repos, and celebrated English visitors here, from Edward Lear and the Durrell brothers to Joanna Lumley. ‘Kensington-on-Sea’ they call Kassiopi, South East of Sidari, the island’s most Northern point, bulging in the summer with rich Notting Hillites from London. Both of them above Kalami, where Lawrence Durrell and his lover had that White House on the sea, the property I think now owned by Lord Rothschild, or perhaps that’s above. Lawrence was of course a very different creature to his brother Gerald, that oh so British naturalist of the charming My Family and Other Animals. Whose practical, observant, scientific echo reminds you of the Brit care of local animals here; the tiny kittens like pocket watches and the battered cat families that survive around the dustbins. Perhaps I share fictional Nikitas’s prejudice against Right-Wing people, (except when you’re trying to get some decent service, or to fix my fridge, yet again), but I would translate it to people who don’t like animals instead.

Lawrence’s different kettle of fish to his brother, like some familial fault line at the centre of Paradise Street too, was in his attraction to Eastern philosophy, his protracted philandering, that help some remark he was ‘not a nice man’, but his skill too at history and very gorgeous travel writing, that did a great service to Greece. I’ve never read the Alexandria Quartet but know his painting the island of Corfu as ‘Prospero’s Cell’, referencing a bogus local legend a friend told him that Shakespeare’s The Tempest was set here. As if imagination and literature, from Homer to now, are not a country to themselves, as Martin Amis once remarked in shock at the Islamic reaction to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Well, the art of the novel, and of course the older ‘God Consciousness’ of Myth too, in the very emergence of language and storytelling itself, is that they aren’t entirely separate countries either, if they have power and meaning.

As for the map, physical and internal, and my obviously scruffier end of the isle below the airport, whose open runway always gives me a strange buzz, it is apparently Agios Stephanos to the North of Kalami that attracts the true cognoscenti and the elite ‘Philhelenes’ so questioned in The House on Paradise Street. So the novel discusses that superiority of knowledge and power that in the eyes of Nikitas made the British almost as bad as other conquerors, from Lord Elgin to even mosquito-bitten Lord Byron, but especially Churchill, with his carving up of Europe with Stalin at Yalta. A pact that saw both British and American influence after 1947 go unchallenged by the Soviets, although a role that other Greek protagonists in the story are very grateful for. It made me think of the pretty waitress in the Tea shop who had said so warmly “I like the British”. In the factual historical postscript to the book and with regard to Metaxa and the Colonels, who I first heard about personally on holiday visits as a child with my parents, when Greece was still a Homeric dream, comes that phrase that has haunted the World from London to Iran since WWII – “supported by the CIA.”

Meanwhile my chance friend on Agios Gordios tried to mimic being so ‘verrrrry British’, although she hardly knew where to look when I told her that at Edinburgh University I had once visited a friend at Broom Hall, only to see a tiny bit of the Parthenon on the Drawing Room wall.  It was the Bruce home, and so Lord Elgin’s house and to be fare to myself I tried to pierce the grandeur of it by pretending to steal the cutlery. That Elgin Marble thing, or how you rewrite or correct history in a globalised World, or indeed if you should in a multicultural epicentre like London and The British Museum, serving so many visitors and scholars too, is an aspect that is intelligently dismissed by Nikitas in visiting Maud in London.

So instead to the human horror of war and especially Civil War and the atrocities on both sides, which was of course redefined by that super battle that began before World War II ever ended, the function and ideology of money and so power, Capitalism versus Communism, as the Cold War began. Fought with such vigour by the likes of Allen Dulles in Switzerland and then from America. That East Coast lawyer, OSS man and first Civilian director of the CIA, and great share holder in the American Fruit Company too. It is Churchill’s role I don’t really know about though, who incidentally was brought to power instead of Chamberlain partly through the offices of my grandfather Clement Davies, as Liberal leader and head of the All-Party Group in the UK Parliament.

The novel is fair minded by giving different voices and perspectives, just as one character says Greece was not a British Colony. Although what truth can be reached if Greece still thinks it was ‘them’ doing it all cynically, like modern day Politicians up at the top? When graft can go from top to bottom, all humans have potentially murderous instincts, the British Empire bankrupted itself fighting Nazi evils, for any Imperial evils, as America achieved a new Hegemony, and that ruling instinct was always towards law and order, especially in the vicious and tragic maelstrom of the Balkans. Churchill did not have the power to impose his will at Yalta and had to engage in real-politique, just as the Philhelene ideal was perhaps betrayed by the horrible realities of war, resources and survival. Something to wake up to, as much as Communist Idealists in softer countries woke up to the horrors of Stalin.

A historical postscript reminds you of the fact Greece did not become a country until 1830 either and then references the ‘catastrophe’ of Smyrna in 1927. Not so much Ethnic Cleansing as Ethnic Rearranging, shifting 500,000 Turks and 400,000 Greeks, always the problem of the Nation State, especially when religious identity and ideology steps in too – Christian versus Islam, that fault line so much clearer at the Bosphorous. One that competes with a ‘Greece’ that stretches back to Byzantium and the Eastern Empire. “I’m orthodox and respect their faith,” one waiter had grunted, looking out to sea and talking of ‘them’, after new beheadings on TV, as I failed to get the boat to Vidos. But he certainly didn’t agree when I gave him my weak-livered ‘One Planet’ liberalism. It was of course Ataturk though who tried to modernize a sclerotic Ottoman world, removed his mother’s headscarf in public saying she was too beautiful to hide her face, shifted the Capital to Ankara and tried to separate religion from the State.

Fatherland and God are defined as powerful forces in Greece in Zinovieff’s novel too, as they were in Spain, against those supposedly ‘Godless’ and youthful instincts to create a new world among the often Communist Partisans fighting the Nazis from the mountains or the idealistic Red Brigades. Meanwhile though The House on Paradise Street attempts a story that heals with the instincts of a woman and mother, while not sitting on the fence either. That phrase then – ‘atrocities on both sides’ – which is such a challenge in places like Syria now, is not quite good enough and is countered with the instinct to expose the Right Wing prison camps, the suffering in women’s detention centres, being much a book about women, and indeed the often ruthless support of the British Establishment up to 1947, that included decapitations of at least dead soldiers.

All potentially at the heart of modern debates too about the role of Greece in Europe, or Germany in Greece, just as a new German company was just exposed as one of the most corrupt of all. Or what happened when the European Troika insisted both on restructuring and savage cutbacks, and the actions of the likes of the Universal banking Spider, Goldman Sachs. It was interesting to see Zinovief take a differently slanted line then in the story of Maud’s children, echoing many things I have heard too, from my Economics teacher friend, or local mothers, about the old fashioned rote teaching methods here, in a sense the patriarchalism of history and National loyalty, and that much of it is about the frustrations and bewilderment of young people. So it references the murder of a young student by police, or the student deaths under the Colonels too, but balances that with a skepticism about ‘hoodie’ anarchy and lost generations. So too I’ve heard among new younger friends perhaps a worrying tendency to grow old or give up too soon, though it’s something many feel facing the vast capital gulfs of today. Don’t give up. Remember the light, the beauty, the future and the Gods that make you eternally young. Greece does have a working Democracy, it is investigating the crimes of Golden Dawn members and it also has a right to talk about the flaws of the European or Global Capital model too. Meanwhile Zinovieff can use the protection of fiction to address things that might cause offense here, or furious over-reaction, like why driving is so challenged, smoking is everywhere, or how the loud shouts of malaka at every slam of a backgammon piece sometimes frightens the non natives. Others might find it a quality of foreign difference and charm.

Much meat for my Greek guest at a barbecue who seemed convinced everything from to Ebola to Iraq is a global conspiracy and that old bug bear too, an Israeli one. With that you can’t really argue the facts though, as much as I might agree with the potential conspiracy of Capital and Corporations to always reproduce themselves, sometimes at deep human cost, because it usually descends into a kind of paralyzed mysticism. Yet I also wanted to chat to him about Parmenides, and one theory that the belief the entire history of Western Civilization is based on Socratic rationalism is in fact a misreading or writing of Plato, Parmenides writing just one fragmentary poem on Nature, and about the Snake and the Cadeucus, theatre, dream caves and Aesclepius too. Perhaps that was the lead in to the discussion too of how to learn and earn the joys of just living simply, free of the storms of the world, in such a beautiful place.

As for Britishness, my other experience of it here though was far less dramatic or imperial, at a friend’s birthday in the little Paradise bar overlooking ‘Mouse Island’, Pontikonisis, just below my house, where someone said the Albanian owner foolishly watered the wine. A group of fifteen English ladies, a German and my fiesty American friend, met for drinks and oily snacks. All of whom had married Greek husbands in the heyday of their romance with Paradise, like Shirley Valentines swept into a sea of passion and new possibility. Another English wife I talked to the day before in Corfu Town though now finds that roots are roots and that for her there remains a gulf of understanding or experience at times with her Greek man. The ladies at the supper are mothers, have jobs teaching, or working in the tourist industry, face the common issues of survival and every day life. Sometimes perhaps a cultural paucity too, or a lack of stimulation perhaps, common to young locals too, though Corfu Town is home to the Ionian University, that makes the likes of the Arillas beer festival a weekend must, engagement with the amateur theatre group vital, or talk of celebrity a place of a special frisson. The big, exciting world.

Now though, since the day Jude Law came, to be naughty or not in his villa, the reps have to sign special non-disclosure agreements. We all like the wild, the naughty and the indiscreet too, life-gossip, if not quite the loucheness of Kavos in the far South. I drove down one day, in search of who knows what, to find Kavos, even emptied of tourists, a gaudy horror story of strip pubs, indecorous lounge pools and Medical Clinics seemingly every 100 metres, to take in the drunk and the wounded, from the evening fights or the blow job competitions. The mayor complained loudly when a British Documentary about it was screened, as if it had offended Greek Honour, or Manhood. In that it probably does offer a cliche of a Brit Package Tour, ever pilloried as being the drunks or thugs abroad. But Corfu is big enough, sexy enough, roomy enough, to allow for that too, like a touch of the dark side in the Southern subconscious. I now call Kavos Corfu’s Torrid Zone.

So to sitting in the immortal Robins Nest in Agios Gordios, the charming little bar run by a sparky lady from Chicago who has been here 29 years, seems to have done everything, lets people flow through her place like magic and say’s she dislikes money and is ‘a trader’, the trade being human potential and fun. From dressing up parties, to the beautiful hand painted rocks that litter her place. “We don’t have Greek comedians” said the young car mechanic glumly, over a Trivial Pursuit question, and there are not many jokes in The House on Paradise Street either, but here there’s lots of laughter. So folk come, year in year out, friends and near family, Robin has four Greek children – from America, Britain, Norway, Serbia, although not everywhere. Since Robin thinks I’m far too posh, and that Pink Palace Hotel above is so very pink, it brings a slight yearning for the days when Sir Frederick Adam got so romantic with his Greek wife. As for how little I know, I never realized William Ewart Gladstone was a High Commissioner in Greece. But that world is gone, as the novel warns modern Greeks should embrace a new if however confusing world that they can only understand by jettisoning both some of the prejudices and especially bitter memories of the past, that essentially feed on the dead. The problem is that Greek identity or the search for it among the sense of pride and self worth is so mixed up in the past, and Soumian’s Marble Steep, that abandoning it sometimes seems like abandoning the Gods themselves, or the roots of language. On the other hand, one of my friends hates all that Greek Bazouki music and all life movement is a battle between past and present, localised or wider horizons. Last year my attempt to contact The Lawrence Durrell Society, for instance, as a Brit writer perhaps dreaming of Consulates, exotic Balkan Trilogies or sexy spies, resulted in a very desultory response. With not only the discovery that the budget had been slashed, and the lease on their building gone, but that lunch up North was far more appealing than making an effort to have a drink with a nosy Brit like me.

Hey ho, perhaps Corfu needs some brand new writers and poets, I thought, if anyone reads anymore, especially as I watched a gaggle of Russian sailors decamp around Corfu town last month, in those huge, flat, wide-brimmed sailor’s caps, that always look decidedly fascist. Apparently one of Russia’s largest warships was in port, The Moscow, docked among the giant ferries sailing between Turin or Venice, and bristling with missiles the size of White Mercedes. Young men in a foreign town, they sat politely in the Souvlaki restaurants, or gathered to drink beer and smoke cigarettes, as they got snaps and it all became part of their life memories too. Perhaps, with Mr Putin’s taste for muscle-flexing and the anguish in Ukraine, they’ll do what the Brits did, and not so long ago according to a nostalgic English friend at super who told me her husband’s stolen boat turned up on the news, used as transport for Albanian drug smugglers, and invite the growing phalanx of Russian package tourists swarming to the island on board for evening cocktails. You hear the Slavic voices in my local shop, Nikki Foros, or on the promontory below the big hotel beyond Mouse Island. It all seems so unreal though, on this generous, gentle island, where EasyJet plans to open Winter routes next year. Except when the sun sets and that nagging warning voice comes again, as you watch the News or look at Mr Putin’s face, that history not only repeats itself, but never learns the lessons of history.

So to what’s above me on the hillside, and apropos of a friend writing to ask me if I had been to the house and palace of Sisi. That rather bizarre and tragic woman, Elizabeth of Bavaria, Empress of Austria, murdered by a young anarchist in 1898, often lived in the Achilleon, the fine white marble mansion bursting with old curios, wide terraces with marvelous views and statues of the ancient Gods, to remind you of Germanic Philhelenism. Achilles is the centre piece, of course, the greatest of especially Greek warriors, only to remind you his wound was weak humanity, or mortality itself, as his mother dipped him in the river Styx, but had to hold him by that Achilles’ heal. Perhaps we should remember though that Athens, the home of those lost marbles, Democracy and Pericles, was also a warring City State, built by men and founded in slavery, or that the best of Greece, like the best of anything, was always a kind of myth.

The Achilleon is far better and more proudly preserved a place than the likes of the dusty museum on Mon Repos, open to 8pm everyday of the year, at 7 Euros a pop. It is of course also the place where the Greek experiment in Europe was first hammered out and then the bailout too. I didn’t visit again, but had an ice cream outside and enjoyed the Cypruses and the glowing evening sunlight, just beyond the sleepy village of Gastouri. Where thanks to lost English friends I first came to visit Corfu, three years ago. I thought of one whose father was murdered and told my new Dutch friend about it. “It happened” he said, “though it doesn’t really now. Often with two warnings and then a shotgun.” The crime has never been solved. That new friend of nostalgic British memories at the birthday supper had offered me a little flat to buy in Gastouri, but do up too, that wouldn’t exactly break a very down trodden bank yet, unless I got caught up in too much skimming off the top. Which my dutch friend remarked in his father’s experience of building, as he criticized the mentality here, especially in blaming others, planned to return for some Eco-living and bravely defended the honesty of his Albanian neighbour too.

Such things remind you always of real people and real lives beyond the borders, images and isms, washed up or not, which is what The House on Paradise Street is about too. I suddenly wondered and thought too it would not be remotely possible if the economy was not down. So to the real question, whether to stay on here writing through the winter, perhaps renting, and where any roots really are now? I thought of the little painting I had given my Scot’s friend for her birthday, a pleasant watercolour of Mouse island, bought in an art shop in Corfu town, then of that US girl who had so strangely wanted to get a very confusing tattoo – “Sail on Ulysses”. Then of the big eyed girl on Agios Gordios, who had so suddenly vanished that evening at Robin’s bar, with no reason and little rhyme, that put me in a bad mood for days. Who had told me of the ancient legend, that Pontikonisis had been the boat of Nausicaa, transformed by the Gods. It added to Nausicaa’s paradox, because while it was the Phoenicians who took poor, belabouring Odysseus home to Ithaca, and Nausicaa is said to have married his son Telemachus, that name never mentioned to patient Penelope actually means ‘burner of ships’. Hmmm, whatever the myths or truth, sometimes it is so lovely here I wonder if the island will let me go.

David Clement-Davies October 2014

Around the World? The photo is from the road above Agios Gordios on Corfu.

Leave a comment

Filed under Community, Culture, Education, Environment, Fantasy, Language, The Phoenix Story


An essay on working with wild Coyotes in the Californian Central Valley
by Kelly Michelle Baker


You know, it’s sometimes a rough go being a young ecologist. After four-plus years of exams, loans, groans and you finally try to enter the workforce. Then it doesn’t even want you. Most entry-level jobs are only temporary and pay very little indeed, if anything at all. Furthermore, they don’t really want your education, your genius, your dreams; they want your skills set and above all experience. So suddenly that perfect point average that you fought for so laboriously in college is topped by another’s raw field experience. For every fifty applications you submit, you may hear back from just two employers. If you are exceptionally lucky, then you’ll get an interview. If the stars are aligned, you’ll be hired.

So why do we even bother? Simply put: someone has to. The planet is warming. Natural resources are vanishing. Whether or not you’re in the habit of hugging trees, ecology affects everyone and everything, and whatever your profession, you play a role, you have an impact somewhere. As a wise bear once said “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Although last-minute vegetation thinning, so no brush to spread the flames, didn’t save my house from 2012’s Waldo Canyon fire…and luckily Colorado Springs firefighters were more capable than ours. Somewhere out there is an important cause though and we’ve the power and passion to fight for it, so long as the Buzz brings it to the forefront of our often blinkered lives and clipped attention spans.

I sound a little vitriolic sometimes. I can be. The battle for a green earth is just that: a fight. For every winter night that my roommate and I trade indoor heating for a wooly sweater, our neighbor is basking in their own personal furnace. For every day we try to buy sustainable foods, someone is enjoying a Big Mac (in the sense such a thing is enjoyable, if you’ll forgive my culinary snobbery). With over-exploitation and over-population too, it’s an uphill climb and mine are just the little steps. What are the really big ones then? After facing two years of infrequent employment, I finally made the decision to go back to grad school. Although my intentions were necessarily self-serving, and still are to the extent I need a pay cheque, my advocacy has sharpened. That stands to reason; I’m among my own people now, each with their own passion, their own issue too. I adopt their interests and they adopt mine. That’s the glory of education — in finding your calling and running headfirst towards that better tomorrow.

So what am I doing now and how am I becoming a better ecologist? That’s the biggest question you’re faced with entering grad school. I took it very seriously indeed. By asking seasoned faculty members, hounding them sometimes, by turning to the big guns too like the Fish and Wildlife Service, at last I found my answer: I was going to collect coyote poop! I guess you might call it Doo or Die… Laugh. No really, laugh! Please. Poop, fecal matter, dog dung, whatever you call it, is after all inherently funny. The fact that I am up to my neck in it now is even funnier because, as a person with some personal digestive issues myself, as my family well know, perhaps it’s kismet I would at last get to examine the scat of another omnivorous animal. Yet why is collecting scat so important? In that I am perfectly serious and it’s not that obvious either. Here are my field-won justifications then:


1) Coyotes effect everything in the local food chain, probably more than you think, even if you don’t spend your day thinking about it! The best way to find out what they eat is to look at what they leave behind. Although coyotes have an evolutionary aptitude for a predator diet, they’ll eat anything from wild grapes to crickets. Here in the Californian Central Valley we have many crops and in the Fall coyotes start eating tomatoes. Quite a few of them, in fact. Almonds too. This may hinder or help agriculture but whether or not they are scoffing enough crops to cause any substantial damage is beyond the scope of my study, as yet. BUT we can know with certainty that coyotes prevent crop damage by indirect consumption, which brings me to item two:

2) Coyotes eat micro herbivores like voles, rabbits, mice, rats, etc. This is hugely significant. Although we have a few bobcats and birds of prey here that do their own work, coyotes put an enormous dent into what would otherwise be explosive rodent populations. This is good for ecosystems then, as proliferation of any one species may exacerbate disease, encourage invasive species dispersal and so on. But it also has anthropogenic effects. Meaning the balancing act is that Coyotes may eat crops but mice eat MUCH more. About 8% of crop damage per acre comes from birds and herbivores, most of which are themselves prime snacks for tummy rumbling coyotes. Without predators then this statistic would skyrocket. A similar finding was made with the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 by the Naturalist Jean Graighead George, underling the importance of predator activity to healthy biospheres. Out terrain is in fact sparcer, harder, less of the real wild. Given my findings so far, specifically the massive number of voles that coyotes eat in every season and at every refuge, I believe the blushing tomatoes are certainly worth the trade-off.

3) Coyotes have intrinsic value, especially if you love animals, like me. Indeed, to bring back the romance of such animals too is very important, so remember that wily coyotes have those other names too, like the prairie dog, the brush wolf and the American jackal. Some might say this is a little wishy-washy but most nature-buffs can appreciate the beauty of charismatic predators. Coyotes are natives and their presence runs very deep in both human and ecological cultures.

4) Knowing what coyotes eat will lend itself to future research. For instance, if we know coyote are eating mule deer (which can transmit disease to livestock) there could be a study on how bovine-tuberculosis fluctuates in the presence and absence of predators. We could also study seed dispersal and how coyotes spread both wild and agricultural seed. These are just two examples in a hundred possibilities, dozens of which I probably couldn’t dream up, without furthering my education even more.

What’s my real point though, other than to attempt to glamorize, even aggrandize, ecological poo-collecting? I suppose I have many: the first is fight your battles. Take baby steps and stick with them. At the heart of it all, stay learning. Everyone is striving for something (Kickstarter has taught us as much) and even if ridiculous on the surface, try to find the inner merit, even if it may not be immediately so evident. So, keep learning, keep growing, even if that means playing Devil’s Advocate sometimes (as a friend reminded me at my last presentation).

Understanding coyote diet won’t rebuild the polar ice caps by 5 o’clock tomorrow, nor reverse the drought exacerbating wildfires in my own hometown. But it’s a dot of colour and significance in a much grander picture, where sustainability incorporates the wider needs of nature. That’s one hell of a painting. So I hope others will stand beside me with some able brushes and add to the picture too. Be informed in your personal interests and then go much, much further. The world’s very big and there’s much to fix. Get out your tools. Borrow from others and share. With that, I’m off to the seaside to spread the word, which I am trying at my own website too:

Meanwhile you can spread another word on great animal stories and back DCD’s dreams and animal stories too in crowd funding Dragon In The Post by going to Indiegogo and CONTRIBUTING TO A PROJECT

Kelly Michelle Baker

This article is under copyright to Kelly Michelle Baker: 2014. All rights reserved.

Kelly is a young ecologist in California, a passionate reader and one of the team who supported Phoenix Ark Press over Light of The White Bear and Dragon In The Post. The first picture is a Wikipedia public domain image of a Coyote in the snow, in Yellowstone. The second shows a government map of the San Joaquin Valley in California, where Kelly works. All the backers of Kickstarter projects have been invited to contribute their passion, knowledge, concerns and hopes to Phoenix Ark, working with David’s editorial help, as a little publisher throws the doors open wide.

Leave a comment

Filed under Community, Culture, Education, Environment


For Sarah, so sorry that the link to Kickstarter and Light of the White Bear wasn’t working yesterday. I hope it does now by CLICKING HERE

It really needs support now, if you want to be a reader and person waking up to connections in the world.
But if technophobes here have still got it wrong, you can instead Copy and Paste the URL into your browser

I think if we reach just 30% today we still have a melting ice cap’s chance of doing it!!!! Whether it’s there only being two months of ice in Greenland, when there used to be five, and this has happened in our lifetimes, or supporting Ban Ki-Moon’s cry and the UN New York summit in September, or just the love of good story and many blocked projects at Phoenix Ark it would be lovely and important having you along.

Thanks so much.



Filed under America and the UK, Books, Culture, Education, Fantasy, The Phoenix Story, Young Adult



Dear gentle Readers,

can you explain why two hundred and fifty people from around the world have visited this blog in just the last two days, clicked LIKE or joined up as followers of a cultural blog, yet only three people have been kind enough to TAKE THE PLEDGE, on a vital Kickstarter project for Light of The White Bear? (I bless them for keeping the fire going and some with no money at all.)

Do you all just enjoy the humiliation though, like some ghastly spectator sport, not agree that we all float around the internet not really connecting and not really caring either, are you seeing how it’s not done, or are you just too mean?! Perhaps we are all a bit sheep-like, instead of Polar bear-like, and only support in following herds or flocks? Sorry to be frank, my dearly beloved and gentle, noble followers, but we all have passions and feelings, though few had their livelihood and voice stolen away like I did. It really wasn’t fun and neither was losing the girl! But this is as much about whether or not anyone can fight back against a system anyone can fall foul of. If you cannot afford to help I so understand and thank you so much for spreading the word instead but would you have a more serious think too, please?

Since the ice melting sun is shining so bright in old London town though, I’ve decided I can take the pressure of a mere three weeks humiliation, as opposed to six tough years of fighting back, and so to go quite disgustingly positive too, with another short film on the TOP TEN reasons to get involved that you can see by CLICKING HERE

Or pasting the URL

Sorry to be needy, friends, dare I say a little angry sometimes, but an author and Phoenix Ark Press really do need YOU, not then but NOW! Thank you.


ps it even uses humiliating hand puppets in the awful sell and has another go at my friend Tim too, Mr Art himself!

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Childrens Books, Community, Culture, Education, Environment, Fantasy, Publishing, The Phoenix Story


Oh dear Lord, if the cancelling of the tremendous and brilliantly written and acted Ripper Street is one sign of the corrupting cynicisms at the BBC, tonight’s Death Comes to Pemberley (pointless conclusion tomorrow) is the final proof. This loosely drawn and badly mocked up take on a future beyond Pride and Prejudice is exactly the corruption of awful commissioning editors and cynical writers, jostling for place and getting together to muse on what will sell. So they mix a take of now ‘popular’ characters, Mr Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet or Mr Whickham and cobble it together with a supposed detective drama, hence the introduction of decent actor Trevor Eave as the sleuth, like Shoestring in a wig.

It is so bad, so boring, so totally unrelated to the depth of Jane Austin’s marvellous characters and deep social understandings too, not only should the great lady be spinning in her grave but the creators should be hobbled together and pelted with copies both of Persuasion and Hercule Poirot. It aches with the tragic infections of Downtown Abbey too in the search for successful Christmas TV and is so full of anachronisms, cheap attempts to be ‘period’ and hollow references to the ‘duty of great ones’ or ‘I will not be constrained by place, Sir’ that all the actors should be shot or moved to an episode of Dr Who. There is no character, certainly any reflection of Austin’s vividly living people, no script and no point. It is empty prejudice that has none of the pride of Ripper Street and it, like its creators, should be garroted at source.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Education, The Arts, Thrillers


What misery to be about to write praising the BBC’s brilliantly scripted and superbly acted Ripper Street, only to discover the murderers in BBC management have just axed the damned thing. If we have heard about the Golden Age of television in the US, with series like Homeland and many others, why is it that pathetic Britain always ruins the things it is best at? Ripper Street wins by avoiding creaky clichés like Jack the Ripper and instead goes for something that is rich, complex, historically convincing and socially important too. It has created very original characters and it never shies away from issues from Banking to Homosexual repression. It has been marvellously eccentric with its characters and at times deeply moving.

But just as it is getting better and better, lo and behold some idiot in White City street axes it, in another act of TV Murder. It is because the BBC, suffering from no leadership whatsoever, and after the Jimmy Saville scandals and others, is dominated by cowards and in fighting cynics who can only make their own way and feather their nests by getting rid of some one else’s excellence. There may be hope, with the Guardian announcing five hours ago they may have found a funding partner, but why isn’t the BBC that partner? We should all go down to the BBC building and pull up paving stones, tear back railings to assault the over paid ignoramuses and scrawl THE BBC WILL NOT BE BLAMED FOR NOTHING in dripping blood.


Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Education



The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead — his eyes are closed.”

Not the words of Professor Brian Cox, who just gave his charming and brilliant TV lecture at the Royal Society on The Science of Dr Who, but the words of the scientist at the heart of his physics, and the Dr’s too, Albert Einstein. Cox’s programme, including inserts of his mistaken entrance into The Tardis, in confusion over BBC make-up and his witty interaction with Matt Smith’s Dr, was both beautiful and filled with rapt awe, that sings out of Cox’s endlessly clear and accessible voice. A hugely popular voice, much enjoying the show too, not unreasonable for a former small-time rock musician, but never a populist or dumbed down either.

Beginning with Michael Faraday’s nineteenth century lecture at the Royal Society on the chemistry of candle light, he asked the question of whether Time Travel is possible. With the use of celebrity entrances, doing experiments explaining the point and wave movements of light, the spectrometry of elements, with Charles Dance squirting colourful, flaring things into flame, and the relationship between Space and Time, viewer and viewed, he effortlessly opened the box on Relativity. So proving future time travel possible, in fact always happening, in small ways, depending how fast you are travelling, since we move in relative space and time to one another. But clearly mapping the issue of travelling into the past, since the Cone of the Future is defined by the Universe’s ultimate speed limit, the big no-no, travelling faster than the speed of light itself.

He also ventured towards the Dr’s great opponents, Aliens, discussing the paradox that in an infinite Universe we should be being visited by Aliens all the time. They might have brought in a Sontaran or a Cyber Man, but on the other hand it would have been creaky, and Cox went back to wonder instead, to the journey of imagination, when he described how far the radio waves have travelled into the Universe, since the first broadcast of Dr Who in 1963; beyond the reaches of the Milky Way.

Of course we all travel back in time in our heads, through the physical notes that Faraday left of that lecture, through memory too and the accumulation of knowledge, the discarding of what is proved false. What we leave behind too, when we are gone. But Cox always has his eyes clearly set on the future, and the future of teaching science too. So, grasping that ultimate ‘speed limit’, he explained what happens when you touch the edge of the Future Cone. You only can if space-time-bending matter implodes, a Red Dwarf, creating a Black Hole. Of course a Black Hole, in the very smart and very modern reality behind the poetry of Dr Who, is what powers The Tardis, The Eye Of Harmony.

Cox’s words were beginning to sing, filled with harmonies, as he described both the reality and beauty of the Eye of Harmony, a point in time always frozen for the viewer, where you get very strung out indeed, if you are passing beyond that Event Horizon yourself, until you are crushed to a point of Infinite Mass. But as to traveling back in time, he also explained how no one knows if it is possible, because it might theoretically be possible to bend that entire and limited Future Cone around on itself and change the current map of physics, so effectively coming up behind yourself, and everything else, though never in this case up your own backside.

It left open the continuous possibility of wonder and discovery, worthy of all that poetry and imagination in Dr Who. So to a quiet nod to that Universe engine inside the Tardis, something bigger on the inside than outside, like the Human mind itself, with an eye on the limits of reality and discovery, but still in Einstein’s world of open-eyed awe. It was brilliant from start to finish, and unites what the BBC does best, passion and invention, with the time travel of creativity. Another thing it did was stress what is behind the Dr’s character itself, the freedom and courage of imaginative creativity and extraordinary adventure. We need more of this, but perhaps the excellence of Dr Who leads the way.



Filed under Culture, Education, Fantasy, Science, Science Fiction



One of the more disappointing books we’ve read of late, partly because of the strength of expectation, must be Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare, the biography. With a supposedly subtle white glove draped across the highly designed front cover, to suggest the weave of everything, which Falstaff comments on in The Merry Wives of Windsor, this hefty tome is surprisingly conventional and very much one for the Establishment too.

Reassuringly researched, with reportedly a team behind him to check the facts, and so wary of making mistakes, it attempts a different voice by using short chapters and unusual quotations to take us back to a time, successful sometimes in a linguistic impression of chrisolm oil at a Stratford birth, for instance – as in the language making the texture of lives – yet says nothing really new or important at all. It is not that ignoring all the competing theories about Shakespeare is wrong, what is is ignoring the intense passions and conflicts that a period and the problems of history itself evoke and why.

The reason of course is that Shakespeare is such an all-encompassing writer, the poet of all time, that any attempt at conventional biography as an explanation or reflection of his genius, his facility, fails. You need someone like the Russian surrealist Bulgakov, who wrote his fictive Life of Mr Moliere, to try and unite the art and the facts. It is only ever an attempt. But what is so disappointing is that a brilliant creative novelist like Ackroyd, wunderkind of imaginative time travel, and fakery too, above all such a specialist on the London of the period, just opts for safety. So the author who wrote The Thames, Sacred River, and spoke on Dessert Island Disks of being on the side of the ‘spiritual’ camp, in the science-faith split, just fights shy of the issues that might have struck a real sounding bell to Shakespeare and the mystery of his linguistic ‘miracle’, language’s miracle, at a very specific time. Of course for everyone who approaches Shakespeare there is a kind of sanctity that must be acknowledge too, the author who authors trust above all, (except Tolstoy), but that sanctity might come with a little more profanity.

In assuring us Shakespeare is such a conventional writer then, so interested in power, for instance, so consumed by Kingship, that naturally reflected his career path or even his ‘politics’, he sometimes bores, while also touching on ideas that might be really interesting. That those original Wooden O’s were kinds of ‘wombs’ of creativity, for instance, seen within the context of a language in astonishing flux and self-discovery, at a period of intense spiritual conflict during The Reformation. Actual places of magic then, as Katherine Duncan Jones argues. Or that for the author who conceived of such strange, eventful histories, baldly factual history is not quite enough, especially because Shakespeare was so aware of it.

There are flashes of real creative insight, for instance when Ackroyd squashes the competing authorship and anti-Stratford theories with the simple remark that Shakespeare could not have lied about the happiness of a rich Stratford and Warwickshire childhood without some serious psychic disturbance on the surface of his plays. He is a man who knows the connections between writing and the life truths. Yet in just suring up a reassuring view of the validity of word of mouth reports, John Aubrey’s first impressions, or vignets around the few details there are, like those yards of red cloth and Shakespeare and the King’s Men processing in the train of James I, when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men became The Kings Men in 1604, he voids half the point of ‘the play’, the first professional players and playwrights in their new theatres and the struggle of meaning through art.

The biggest cop out is that ‘Shakespeare had no humanitarian purpose’, or it was really only about survival, money and putting bums on seats; the great entertainer, at the centre of a playwriting factory in London. You know what he means about the Humanitarian purpose question, as though we had to fix Shakespeare to a political party, and Dr Jonson said no one but a fool ever wrote for anything but money, but it is just rather disappointing about a writer who went so far and challenged himself so much.

Then there is his treatment of Southwark, that says so little about a place that was such an interesting Reformation fault line too. It is not the stewes, the brothels, or the bear baiting and gamboling dens there that are so important, but the position of the Bishop of Winchester, St Saviours church, Ben Jonson’s description of The Globe as a ‘fortress to the whole parish’ and why Shakespeare might have followed John Gower’s and not Chaucer’s literary tradition, or how the ‘liberties’ affected Shakespeare, younger and older.

The truth is not nearly enough work has been done on the significance of early plays like the three parts of Henry VI, that so sound the historical importance of Southwark, and probably started around 1592. But Ackroyd, as if he is getting old and weary, in need of a literary pension himself, quickly voids the challenges of a place and has Shakespeare inured to it all, spending most of his time up on wealthier Silver Street, near the Cripplegate.

Yet Shakespeare spent at least ten years there, probably longer, it was the place of the Rose and Swan, and the locus of the Globe, so his creative outlet whether in London or Stratford. While in picking John Gower to be the Chorus for Pericles, in the year his brother Edmund died, 1607, with such an issue of brothels highlighted in that strange play, it suggests how significant a place was to his themes and even crises. Pericles is also a play that has a scenario of a coat of arms at its centre, a withered branch flowering at the top, when his youngest brother, also an actor in London, had just died within four months of his own infant son, who was marked down in the church register as ‘base born’. Perhaps it is one of the reasons for that much noted ‘sea-change’ in Shakespeare’s art, a phrase from The Tempest, towards romances trying to heal time and families.

The truth is though that all the clothes of elegant or nervous research around Ackoryd’s own words and insights swamp his own voice. So it is highly significant that he suggests Shakespeare was ‘protected’ on Bankside and in London, in the backing of patrons or powers-that-be who were perhaps not exactly ‘establishment’, yet it is never really followed up. It would be the antidote to a book like 1599 by James Shapiro that takes a boy’s own view of the player’s independence, carrying that wood south of the river to build The Globe and a thrilling year in Shakespeare’s life. The truth is though that Francis Meres suggests Shakespeare had already well succeeded in London before The Globe was even built, as Ackroyd calls Shakespeare a ‘phenomenon’, and The Globe’s position within the skirts of the Liberty of the Bishop of Winchester is still of untapped significance.

If nothing comes from nowhere, except perhaps Cordelia’s silent love, it is even more important at a time where English history itself seems to appear from nowhere. Ackroyd touches on one of the keys to it all, language as metaphor, those clear springs in the old city, which borders on saying something else, and the uncertain ‘map’ of place that cannot be subsumed to the apparent facts, which is also the opposite of Shapiro’s high American literalism and attempt at precise factual, even journalistic detail. Yet Shapiro succeeds where Ackroyd fails because of the passion of his imaginative engagement, the sensitivity of his discourse about Shakespeare’s Stratford influences and the effect of plays like Henry V, Julius Caesar or As you Like It on contemporary audiences and why. That of course is not enough either, always the poet vanishes again, as was his intention and freedom, but it proves the need for something the great writer knew above all, so underestimated as instinctive storyteller, the compelling narrative.


Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Culture, Education