Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Train Journey

“What station is this?”

She looks up at me, her head raised from the pillow, eyes fixed on something I can’t see. She wants to know where the train has stopped. Is this the station where she must get off? She has no doubt that she’s on a train, and is headed where she needs be. But on which train?

I tell her, “You’re not on any train. You’re in your house --- 98 Stormont Road.”

My words don’t mean anything to her. She’s on a train. Regardless of my rational explanation, the train is her only reality.

“I’m not on a train?” she says.


She shrugs, as if to say, "Whatever you say."

I return to my breakfast, my toast and coffee. Soon I hear her mumble. The same word repeated rhythmically.

“Ches … ches.. ches…” Over and over and over.

When I wake up at night I often hear it. Sometimes during the day, or evenings while waiting for lights-out. We don’t have any idea what it means.

In Polish “Czas” – means time. “Czesc!” means Hi.

But “Ches…ches… ches…” ?? Perhaps it’s more like a nervous tic. An obsessive compulsive pattern.

Last night when I kissed her good-night, she said, “What carriage are you in?”


“Are you in the next one?”

“I’m not on any train. I’m sleeping in the bed over there.”

I’m not sure she sees the bed. When I mentioned the train to Agata, who stays with her day and night, she said, “Cocia's always imagining that she’s getting on a train.”

While Amber and I drink our morning coffee, I hear the rhythmic sound of a steam locomotive:

“Choo … chooo…choo…” Then, “Are we at the station?”

What is this train? A memory of something that happened long ago, when Poland was occupied by the Germans? A short while ago she couldn’t sleep for fear that a massacre was taking place. She called out, “They’re killing the women!” It's likely that during the occupation she could have witnessed a bloodbath from a train window.

Or is the train her life? Years back during a retreat she attended, the priest described Earthly life as a train journey: traveling toward the station where you finally get off. Never sure which station it will be, you have to be ready for it. She told me about the image; said that she liked it. When I talk to her about death, I feel that death is still an abstraction that she can't relate to. But the train journey is real. She and I are on that train but in separate carriages. She wants to know what station we’re at. What station is coming up.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Simon Magus --- New Light on an old story

Disputation with Simon Magus by Fillipino Lippi

Episode 4 of Sophia Through Time takes place at the time of Emperor Nero. The Gnostic teacher Simon Magus is reunited with Helen, whom he recognizes as the incarnation of Thought, separated from him before time began. Together they must face their greatest trial in which one of them must die.

Click here for the story

Friday, 17 February 2012

Of Wolves and Donkeys

The chief question posed when debating the return of the wolf to Scotland, is how to protect livestock. Since the days of the Highland Clearances,Scotland is a land of large sheep and cattle farms. Economic enough but not lucrative. My neighbours often tell me that only with EU subsidies can they turn a profit. Many farms aren't fenced, and those that are wouldn't keep out a wolf. So, is the prospect of returning the wolf to Scotland total lunacy?

Perhaps there’s another solution to coexisting with wolves that doesn’t involve covering the entire country with eight-foot tall electrified fencing. Ranchers in Minnesota, Montana  where the wolf has made a strong comeback are finding that donkeys provide considerable protection against both wolves and coyotes. Apparently donkeys are more effective at keeping the wolves away than the more traditional method of shooting the wolves on sight.  In care you think this is an April Fool column, here’s the lowdown from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture. Could a strategic addition of donkeys in Scotland safeguard sheep from wolves?

Wolves and Donkeys don’t get along. The enmity between the two species, the canidae and the equidae is legendary. Donkey owners know that they need to keep their dogs away as the donkey will kill them. Not only dogs. The donkey, with its kicking and braying is one of the few domestic animals that can fluster a wolf and send it running. The nasty-tempered donkey has been known to trample many a wolf. Llamas apparently also share the same animosity toward wolves.

What is it about donkeys that instead of hightailing it when wolves appear, they’ll stand their ground and indeed move in to attack? It’s not a lack of intellect; it may be their innate stubbornness. Or a lack of fear. Have you ever tried to fluster a donkey? There’s even a report of farmers in Namibia using donkey to protect their stock from leopards. Wow! Next time I go on a safari, I’m taking a donkey with me for protection.

Donkeys are herbivores. They don’t eat wolves, but nature has endowed them with a good kick, fearlessness and  long ears that give them  acute hearing. They’ll hear a wolf or coyote when it’s far away and respond with loud braying. The wolves evidently respect animals that stand up to it; a donkey’s bray sends them running. Not always though. Wolves have been known to kill young donkeys.

Then there’s the story of the poor wolf and donkey cooped up in the same cage near Tirana, Albania. The pair of them decided that it would best for them to be friends, and so they learned to live together for a while. Fortunately as a result of a petition from various humane societies, the two were set free.

Will it work in Scotland? Donkeys and llamas alone won't totally safeguard a flock, however they are part of the solution. In Colorado where coyotes frequently attack sheep, 99% of farmers use donkeys as guard animals. They also use fencing.

Additional references

The Wolf Army


Video from Switzerland 

Sunday, 12 February 2012

How do you write a novel?

It’s the question that many people ask me at a book-signing, at newspaper interviews or upon hearing that I’ve published a novel. I’ve been writing since my teens. finished ten novels of which two have been published. I can answer the question --- How I write a novel but other authors will have very different responses.

The old cliché that writing a book is like having a baby is not far off the mark. It gestates for a while, grows inside you, then there’s pain, labour and the child appears. I can’t do outlines, synopses and the like. After the book is finished I’ll struggle to produce a synopsis for a publisher, but I hate them.

Each novel begins with a strong feeling, about something in particular; sometimes for a while not identifyable. A student wakes up to find four eyes in his head. How does he feel about them? God on Texas Death Row. Could it happen? With Gaia’s Children, gestation began with the vision of a country torn apart by climate change, climate refugees hunted down by skinheads, and of a woman who stood up for the refugees. The human race was close to finished. The planet was ridding itself of a deadly virus --- us. The evolutionary torch would be passed on to a new race.

In presenting the new race it seemed to me that the role of human language is critical. It shapes our thoughts, attitudes to the environment. In greater part it affects our psyche. Language cause us to divide subject from object, you from I, outside from the inside. It gets been me and what I observe. Our attitude to the Earth as a dead thing to be exploited follows from language and our thought structure. We can try to change things by creating peace movements or doing environmentally friendly things. All window dressing. Our behaviour will not fundamentally change as long a the old psyche remains. Could a radical change happen if we were shown the way? If we lived alongside a people with a different, non-verbal psyche?

While those thoughts and feelings bounced about, I didn’t put anything down. The character of Linella (inspired by Amber) took shape. Some of the others too but no more than charcoal sketches. The unborn book was growing even when I didn’t give it much attention. I wrote the opening chapters. I had to work out how to present events from the point of view of people who don’t verbalize. Several versions of those chapter went into the rubbish bin. Finally the plot skeleton emerged as a series of chapter headings. I still didn’t know details of what each chapter would contain.

The rest tended to flow. Chapters appeared without my knowing of where or how they came from. But they made sense. Whenever I was stuck, I returned to the original vision and to the characters. After the first draft came the hard part, checking the plot and characters for consistency, voice and motivation. You have to be draconian about throwing out stuff that doesn’t work. No matter how much you like it. Then there came endless editing. Sometimes Polish dialog that makes no sense in English sneaked in. Amber’s ear for dialog caught those. She’d tell me: “Nobody speaks like that.”

Other books followed a similar course. In each case the initial vision was key, the place from which the story flowed. I’ve found that as long as I adhere to it, the rest of the writing process takes care of itself.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Aristotle in Love

In Episode 3 of Sophia Through Time, Sophia gives the venerable philosopher a lesson in love. Not only his syllogisms fail to rescue him when he most needs them. He discovers aspects of himself that he cannot readily categorize.

Please leave comments on the webpage

Saturday, 4 February 2012

They’re Taking Away our Jobs!

Refugee Camp - Calais

There are few more divisive issues than immigration. It’s not a subject for a dinner party unless you like people shouting at each other. Xenophobes claim that immigrants come here for our generous public benefits. Pro-immigrants try to prove that immigrants work hard, taking jobs that the locals don’t like to do anyway. The British tabloids know that an immigration “scare story” will sell copies.

Here are recent headlines from the Daily Express:



The injustice of it all!

And so to our Tory Government was elected with a pledge to reduce UK immigration from hundreds of thousands a year to tens of thousands. They’re facing an impossible task, as most immigrants come from EU countries and have a right to work in the UK.

Coming from the US, I’m familiar with the never ending debate on what to do about our borders in the face of migration pressures that never seem to ease. Build a fence and shoot immigrants on sight? Unsurprisingly the issue is hot in the current US presidential race. The debate is much the same across European countries.

For an excellent article on immigration, see the recent article “Europe at Bay” by Jeremy Harding published in the London Review of Books.

While I have no energy for the political discussions, I’m deeply concerned about the issue. People migrate for economic, political, religious reasons. For thousands of years they’ve braved every danger to secure a better life in another land. During the coming decades, global warming will be major cause for mass migration --- northward to cooler climates. Countries close to the equator and low lying lands, will first bear the brunt of rising temperatures. What would you do when faced by hunger, in a land that no longer supports you? You'd move. Today there are refugee camps near Calais with thousands of immigrants trying to cross the Channel to the UK. Tomorrow we’ll be faced with boat people. How will we respond to the challenge?

Our attitudes in the face of social stresses will determine the sort of world we will create. A dystopia from a science fiction book, where immigrants are incarcerated or shot? A lifeboat swamped by too many people? A multicultural multi-ethnic society?

In my novel Gaia’s Children, and in the short story, The Lottery, my protagonists take in illegal migrants in the face of social opposition much in the way that many during WWII took in Jewish families. I wasn’t trying to make a political point for or against migration, except to say that, when the s***t hits the fan, many indigenous people will host migrant families, whatever the cost. My intuition found partial confirmation in Harding’s article, where he writes:

Plenty of people are disturbed by the consequences of European immigration policy, whatever they think of the principles. In France, when the Interior Ministry began detaining illegal immigrant children at the school gate in 2006, there was a surge in political fostering by indigenous families. Dozens of French children acquired temporary siblings, as their parents took in threatened minors. This radical solidarity prefers the moral case over any argument about national borders. In France, the deportation of Jews in the 1940s is still a vivid precedent.

In Scotland attitudes to immigration are softer than in the rest of the UK. Scotland is still largely mono-cultural, with low diversity, owing to its lower levels of immigration. In a recent survey, Scots support higher immigration targets compared to the English. Though the issue is still divisive, there’s an increased perception here that immigrants, rather than subsisting on benefits, are here to create a better life by working for it. Polish migrants are viewed as hardworking, educated and entrepreneurial. So far Scotland has fewer migrants from warmer climes compared to the rest of the UK, maybe because the place is so bloody cold. Something that may change with global warming.

While I don’t advocate open borders, or an electric fence around the country, I’d like the debate to shift from where it's been stuck for decades. We must first acknowledge the fact that people migrate from country to country. It's a pattern that will never change. Migration will continue, especially in the face of global warming. Building fences and destroying migrant camps won’t stop migration. In facing this fact, we can shift our thinking away from our fears to discover more creative solutions.