Jaguar Paloma and the Caketown Bar by Jess Wells

Jess Wells is an enchantress who weaves words into a magical spell of a book that completely charmed me into believing every larger than life character and each magically real event.     

There is something musical, even symphonic in the way Wells can sustain so many interwoven narratives from the first thematic opening phrases on inevitably towards the marvellous conclusion. Her writing has a rhythmic, singing quality.  She can deftly sustain luxurious sentences, paragraphs and chapters; and also capture a human frailty or foible in a short, mordant turn of phrase.     

Jaguar Paloma and the Caketown Bar is a celebration of many wonderful women. The giantess Jaguar Paloma and her devastatingly beautiful friend Orietta are emblematic of contrasting aspects of being a woman. Jaguar evolves into a goddess who leads, inspires and nurtures an incongruous collection women damaged by men, religion, and war, helping them find self-confidence and joy together, even as their fortunes rise, fall and indomitably rise again.  Orietta wrestles with the burden of her beauty, and the curse of being smarter than the men who would dominate her. And then there are the other marvellous characters: the tiny Hummingbird Jade and her tiny daughter Jewel, Cosimo who falls for her, the Drunken Monk and Agnes the (fallen) Nun, twins, brides, forgers, conmen, mule-skinners, Romani, a banker … In the end, despite all that has marked them, the female (and some of the male) characters, are triumphant. 

If you hear the music in Keats’ words in “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or if you delight in the lilting Welsh voice of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood”,  if the rhythms and rimes of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot” sing in your memory, if you read Ursula LeGuin’s “A  Wizard of Earthsea” with your ears, then you will relish the richness of Jess Wells’ writing. 

Chatbots and AI won’t change everything – much

A clutch of stories that have come out recently, spurred by the ChatGPT released November 30,2022, about which a friend emailed gloomily, “It looks like AI in post-sec education will undermine post-sec humanities for years to come and may never be defeated.”

The Atlantic clutched at its pearls with headlines such as “The College Essay is Dead,” and “The End of High School English.” The Tyee blended panic with ambiguous optimism: “Is the New AI ChatGPT the End of the World as We Know It? Yes. And ChatGPT is a good thing, too.” The New Yorker asked, “Could an IA Chatbot re-write my Novel?”

Nautilus went deeper: “Deep Learning Is Hitting a Wall: What would it take for artificial intelligence to make real progress?” This article by Gary Marcus starts by critiquing the lacunae within existing Chatbots, and goes on to consider the larger issue of AI / Deep Learning. Marcus states, “Few fields have been more filled with hype than artificial intelligence.” Wired poured refreshingly cold water on the hype with an article “The Myth of a Superhuman AI” with the headline: “Hyper-intelligent algorithms are not going to take over the world.” A few days later, another writer in Wired wrote that computers could expose the true future of [writing] in an article entitled, “AI Reveals the Most Human Parts of Writing.”

I’m both more cynical and more optimistic. Though I have close to zero understanding of how AI works, indeed of anything computers do beyond the word-processing function I use to write my stories, I do know something about language. It’s inescapably empirical. In the first and last analysis, people grasp what things and ideas are by having them pointed out to what’s “out there in the real world”.

You want to know what a maple tree is? Come outside with me and look, touch, listen, taste, feel one of the five maples in my garden in high summer when they cast cool green shade, and let me bring you back in the autumn when the leaves turn gold and then fall down to cover the lawn in a crackling, papery, rust-coloured carpet, and you must also see them skeletal in the winter with their branches painted black on the moonlit snow, and of course you should be here in the spring for sugaring-off.

Philosophers call this “point to it” approach an “ostensive definition.” It’s how we attach a word to a perception. We then move on to what boils down to an act of faith that what I call green is pretty much what you call green, within the conventions of a social structure that supports and is shaped by a shared language with a common grammar, wherein can be found host of intangibles such as truth, dignity, value, affection, love. How all this happens within our brains is still a very long way from clear.

What is clear is that human intelligence involves much more than “knowing words for stuff,” which can be printed on a page or encoded in a digital file. Human intelligence is an activity that informs a wide range of faculties from emotional awareness of an actor or poet, to the muscle memory of an athlete, to the temporal and tonal sophistication of a musician, all of them dependent on how we perceive and remember.

In the words of Jordana Cepelewicz, “The Brain Doesn’t Think the Way You Think It Does.” Her article is an introduction to the incredible complexities in how our brains work. MRI has made it possible to “listen in” to our brains at work, and this allows us to make
“great strides in understanding the neural foundations of perception, attention, learning, memory, decision-making, motor control and other classic categories of mental activity. But [we] also found unsettling evidence that those categories and the neural networks that support them don’t work as expected. It’s not just that the architecture of the brain disrespects the boundaries between the established mental categories. It’s that there’s so much overlap that a single brain network “has more aliases than Sherlock Holmes.”

Unfortunately, neurologists rarely talk to technologists, scientists in other branches of science, philosophers, and artists — to say nothing of many journalists — all of whom use the word “intelligence” far too uncritically. They write or imply that a computer “knows” what is meant by the words in its capacious files (I almost wrote “memory”). They implicitly equate the discrete on-off basic operations of digital logic within a silicon-based machine with human mental processes that are so immensely more complicated that we are only beginning to understand their interrelatedness and the “plasticity” with which they adapt.

The trouble with computers, no matter how big and fancy they may be, is that you can’t take them outside to experience the maple trees in my garden. No matter how many words, phases, articles, and books they ingest, because they lack empirical experience they will regularly offer really terrible advice when they apply their algorithmic “reason” to human issues and problems.

Marcus provides several examples, such as this one:

“When Ernie Davis, a computer scientist at New York University, and I took a deeper look, we found the same hallmarks of unreliability. For example, when we typed this: “You poured yourself a glass of cranberry juice, but then absentmindedly, you poured about a teaspoon of grape juice into it. It looks OK. You try sniffing it, but you have a bad cold, so you can’t smell anything. You are very thirsty. So you …” GPT continued with “drink it. You are now dead.”

Nonetheless, AI can make good connections that we hadn’t thought of — short-cuts to desirable conclusions where all we had before was the trail-map left by the adventurous human beings who sniffed their circuitous way to a new idea. Not surprisingly, AI writes excellent code that is efficient, even elegant. (“elegant” is mathematicians’ word of approval for a calculation or proof that has been trimmed by Occam’s Razor down to its bare essentials.) AI can write prose “in the style of” (see The Tyee article), but it is always limited to what’s in its ginormous files, which were updated two years ago.

AI can even write what looks like poetry, but it isn’t, simply because it fails the Nashville Test of “three chords and the truth” — that is, words that arise out of experience. It CAN produce words that “sound real Country” and indeed might even have been written in all those unremembered, unpublished, unsung verses written by thousands of would-be Dolly Partons over the years. AI may have on file the words that point to value, honesty, honour, affection, and love, but it doesn’t KNOW what the words stand for quite simply because it’s not human and it doesn’t experience what words mean.

AI is a really sophisticated parrot with a huge vocabulary and a cunning ability to combine and recombine words. It isn’t thinking, but that doesn’t mean we should consider it a dead parrot. As it improves, and as it is applied to human relationships (staffing, hiring, firing) we must scrutinize its output with care because it doesn’t know that there’s no such thing as a Norwegian Blue. (And don’t get me started on the fact that the damn things only “think” in North American English.)

So what of the student essay? How will we know if someone deserves a pass, a fail or an A in the paper he or she submitted on John Stewart Mill’s Utilitarianism? How will teachers, markers, and professors decide who passes? who fails? who gets a summa cum laude degree?

Pretty much the same way as they always have, only faster. Let’s do some history.

Reports of the imminent death of the student essay all come a bit late, because the expository essay in the humanities and social sciences has been on life support for a very long time. Way back in the days of print on paper, middling students could copy large unattributed chunks of material from Coles Notes (those crib-notes and sample essays on cheap newsprint that were excoriated by teachers of English), thereby avoiding the tedious business of consulting books in the library in search of intelligent-sounding quotes — some of which may have been written by their professors, or their professors’ professors. Many an A essay mark was and still is awarded by profs who are totally chuffed to see themselves reflected in their students’ essays.

In those high and far off pre-web days, first year courses in the humanities frequently began with professors saying words to the effect of “Scholarship is the art of taking infinite pains” in introductory lectures about essay writing in acceptable academic style. They exhorted their students to justify, cite, reference, footnote, and biblographize each and every essay so that it fitted into the interwoven fabric of academic knowledge. Most students interpreted these lectures as a professorial incantation against the dark art of plagiarism.

Historically, students became netizens long before most of their teachers and professors in the Humanities. The advent of the electronic world was largely ignored by professors of English, in particular, save to insist that students not source from the internet. No points for realizing how dismally ineffective that particular injunction was. Thus not only did students scour the internet for papers from which they could crib in whole or part, some of them turned to other more entrepreneurial students who offered counterfeit essays for sale. Many such papers contained a few deliberately inserted errors and infelicities to deflect the attention of a teacher, professor, or increasingly, a grad student marker with little or no incentive to do anything more than process a stack of essays into a spread-sheet of grades. Cynical students argued that since “the system” is impersonal and cares nothing for them as individual persons, why not feed it impersonal essays.

The gradual electronification of academia has brought the humanities kicking and screaming to the web. By 2000, teaching professors in the humanities and social sciences had discovered that there were programs that could identify and trace the sources of (most) on-line materials from which students pillage the building blocks of their essays. It was no longer a battle of wits between erudite profs and errant students, but a contest between ever more sophisticated apps. Since essays today arrive by email, the professor or marker copies any suspect phrase, sentence, or paragraph, and employs a search engine to ransack the same databases as those looted by the students. For a few dollars, an entire essay can be analyzed for evidence of plagiarism.

However, there always were and still are some students who want to wrestle with thoughts, beliefs, and aspirations of famous philosophers, poets and thinkers. These keeners chew their way into the words of great minds of the past and attempt to make sense in their own modern words of what they have read. A very few who have professors who feel the same way, get As. Many stumble into incoherence and a C-. Most write down what little they have gleaned from their professors’ lectures, and leave the words of the great unread as they cooper together Encyclopedia Brittanica articles, explanatory texts and their room-mates’ lecture notes into a few pages, which they embellish with phoney footnotes to works they didn’t read, in the style they have been enjoined to use. A few hours work, and — Robert’s your father’s brother — an almost instant C or with luck a B-. And for those with more cash than time, there is always a black market of essays by the yard, cash on delivery, no questions asked.

There’s evidence to suggest that even in Medieval times there were such ghost writers. However, in those days exams were in the form of the “viva” — a spoken presentation delivered before peers and superiors. This performance followed a formula far more rigorous than the five paragraph essay taught in high school, or the thousand word paper demanded at least once in each university course in the humanities and social sciences. Classical education for centuries demanded students present an argumentium viva voce, which was divided into six sections: exordium, narratio, partitio, confirmatio, refutatio and the peroratio. The format was as settled as the 14 lines and rhyme scheme of an Italian sonnet. That the students were usually chewing over the same old ideas was not at issue, indeed the occasions when they deviated from accepted wisdom were cause for serious concern that might lead to censure, expulsion, or even denunciation to the Inquisition.

Inevitably, whether out loud or on paper, students were and are judged by the number of facts they recognize, memorize and then insert into the approved format, which is also true of today’s essays, exams, and tests, and even in multiple-choice machine-scored exams.

But what of those urgent articles about AI making it impossible for teachers to know if their students really know? Short answer, they and we don’t, and we never did. And well, um… what do we mean by “know”? By the time I was 40 I had completely forgotten even the course titles of at least a quarter of those I attended on my way to my degree. By the time I was 80, I was just beginning to get a grip on what Hume had to say. By this I mean that learning in the humanities is a gradual, messy, inefficient, continuing process, non-evaluable even by yourself, let alone anyone else. And yet, universities continue to tell us that this person is brilliant, and that one not so much, and most of the time they’re right.

Will AI and ChatGPD (and their no doubt more sophisticated successors) change the academic essay? Yes, but not much. There will be fake essays as there have been for a very long time, along with honours degrees attained by people without honour.

Leaving aside the verity of essays for a moment, the larger issue in North American universities is the headlong retreat from tests, exams, defences of essays, theses, and dissertations. Though the ghost of the viva persists in graduate seminars, watered down by the increased number of people in the room, unfortunately, professors can no longer demand that students “stand and deliver,” because it is feared that this might make an individual the focus of unwelcome attention — particularly if the experience involves being interrupted, questioned, criticized, or graded. In universities where these concerns have been elevated to policy, evaluation is no longer acceptable lest sensitive souls be traumatized. Consequently, students offer “their truth” for immediate and uncritical acceptance and approval. For some pedagogues, this may be a comforting departure from the competitive world of marks, exams, evaluations and hierarchies of excellence, but “my truth” is very distinct from “truth” in “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” of the witness stand, where empiricism rules as much as any judge. And I’m pretty darned sure it isn’t “MY truth” that has long been featured on universities’ mottos and convocation addresses.

It seems inevitable that we will continue to speed up the academic process, thereby reducing both rote learning and formal essays featuring arcane (and variable) standards of footnoting and bibliography. We have the technology. Today’s electronic books and essay collections allow a student to copy words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs and paste them into their essays. No longer is it necessary for them to flip through the pages of half a dozen books open on one’s desk, consult their bibliographies and footnotes, check the date and edition on the flyleaf, ensure that the commas, parentheses, colons, upper and lower cases all follow the approved academic format. On-line sources allow words, phrases, and sentences to be cut and pasted into an essay, complete with fully-prepared citations ready for footnotes or bibliographies. Cut, paste, Bob’s your uncle. And when the essay arrives in the professor’s or marker’s inbox, the whole process can be deconstructed and reverse engineered by an app designed to root out plagiarism. Thinking is as optional as is reading the original texts. All can be done electronically by those who aspire to become the tenured cognoscenti.

Instead of the personal essay of yore (which I argue never really happened except to the exceptional few) we will still have the research essay with every concept, principle, deduction or factoid carefully referenced to its origin. The more serious flaw in this brave new essay-writing world lies not in the technology or how it is used, but that increasingly the essay is written totally within the framework of that particular aspect of that specific discipline, as if nobody outside those limited confines ever wrote anything of significance. Sociologists cite only sociology texts; psychologists focus exclusively on the work of other psychologists, those who teach literature refer only to literary critics. When this foolishness thrives, scholarly activity diminishes to skirmishes among increasingly recondite schools of thought within the parameters of the various disciplines.

I believe, that is, “it is my truth,” that the good deed of a genuine essay that wrestles sense out of a problem will still outshine glossy constructs by AI and Chatbot. The spoken words of an honest seminar presentation will compete with the glib grad who leads his once-a-term seminar without having read the books he talks about. The student who integrates thought across the artificial divides between courses, disciplines, and faculties will still be at university, whether recognized or not. Some will write books and articles that won’t appear in preferred journals and academic presses. Some will publish on Twitter, SubStack, or the like. Some will self-publish. Life, learning, and larceny will go on.

I no longer have to mark essays. If I did, the question I’d ask a student who has offered me what I suspect is a Chatbotted essay is, “Have you read it?”



For further reading….

https://www.wired.com/2017/04/the-myth-of-a-superhuman-ai/

https://www.wired.com/story/artificial-intelligence-writing-art/

https://link.wired.com/view/5c92ae5324c17c329bed5e6ehuxws.11an/3029171e

https://www.quantamagazine.org/mental-phenomena-dont-map-into-the-brain-as-expected-20210824/

https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2022/12/13/New-AI-Chatbox/?utm_source=daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=131222

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2022/12/openai-chatgpt-writing-high-school-english-essay/672412/

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2022/12/chatgpt-ai-writing-college-student-essays/672371/

https://www.science.org/content/article/ai-learns-write-computer-code-stunning-advance?utm_source=nautilus-newsletter&utm_medium=email&he=46242865a8d2f525f08b0c6b00eab4dc

https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/could-an-ai-chatbot-rewrite-my-novel

https://nautil.us/deep-learning-is-hitting-a-wall-238440/

A new way to choose your next book to read

Looking for something to read but overwhelmed by choices? Shepherd.com offers an attractive way to search for books that doesn’t involve a soulless algorithm. Writers pick their favourite books that “go-together” with one of their own books. See what you think of the idea, and while you’re there, take a peek at my pick of five books: “The best books in which reality and fantasy meet and meld.”

Because WordPress won’t accept a link to Shepherd, you’ll just have to use your browsers to get to Shepherd.com, where you can put in my name and you’ll see what a great idea this is.

Two new books in 2021

During the fraught year of 2021 I published two books:

1. Angel’s Share, a novella that tells the backstory of the community of Matris where Astreya ended up in The Astreya Trilogy. The story is told by Angel, the very old man you met briefly in the third book of The Astreya Trilogy

2. Ellie, a character you met in River of Stones and who now has her own eponymous continuing story. This is a story about losing your way and finding yourself.

Both books are beautifully illustrated by Shirley MacKenzie

Review of Hellfire Corner by Alaric Bond

Hellfire Corner (The Coastal Forces Series Book 1)

Hellfire Corner by Alaric Bond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hellfire Corner, Alaric Bond’s latest nautical adventure, departs the Age of Fighting Sail where his other 13 novels are set and instead goes aboard MTBs (Motor Torpedo Boats) and MGBs (Motor Gun Boats) of the Coastal Forces in the English Channel during WWII. MGBs were made of wood and powered by two or three massive petrol-drinking internal combustion engines. The boats were lightly armed with half-inch Vickers and 20mm Oerlikons and their wooden hulls had no armour whatsoever.

Fast but vulnerable, MTBs and MGBs were in the main manned by men with little sea time or experience prior to the outbreak of war. Bond accurately depicts the struggle to fight both the elements and the enemy, as well as the constant need to maintain and repair the boats and their hard-pressed engines. He accurately catches the “business as usual” heroism of such men who simply got on with their dangerous and at times near suicidal jobs. Unlike novels based in the age of Nelson, these people talk like us, and Bond catches their voices.

Where the historic great sea battles wounded or killed men in horrific numbers, this Channel war at sea is intimate. Bond excels in generating suspense by depicting the randomness of combat, in which one man may live when another man beside him is killed or maimed. In Hellfire Corner, the eight men aboard MGB 95 are all fully realized characters. We feel we know the men because they are not faceless, nameless crew.

When not on sorties that typically lasted less than 24 hours, men in the Coastal Forces during WWII lived ashore in barracks, hotels or homes that were often under cannon fire from the German guns across the Channel. Their shore lives are therefore much more a part of Bond’s Hellfire Corner than are women characters in novels about the 18th Century. We meet members of the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), who served ashore in communications and the detection of enemy ships and planes.

There is no single hero in Hellfire Corner, waiting to appear in a sequel. Instead, we are immersed in the unpredictability of war, where success and survival can be earned, but are always partly a matter of chance.



View all my reviews

Shirley MacKenzie can see into my head

Here is one of the illustrations Shirley Mackenzie drew for River of Stones, which will be launched in the next few days. When I looked at her first draft, a host of objections swarmed into my mind. Where were the steps my characters ascended as they came up the companionway from the great stern cabin to stride across the smooth white deck of the command position? So I started to kvetch obsessively about details that couldn’t possibly appear in a drawing that fits into a ten centimetre square space in the text.

Next morning, I realized that she’d given life and action to a moment in the story when the three masted schooner Elusive charges past the headlands on her way toward the final scene in the story.

Shirley MacKenzie can see into my head. That’s what it feels like when she shows me one of her illustrations for my books. It’s as if she were looking over my shoulder into my dream-like imaginings where my stories come from. I find myself saying, “How did she know that?”

Believe me, this is rare. Writers get together to commiserate about illustrations to their novels. Book designers slap images onto the covers of books that are ludicrously at odds with the stories inside. Authors go apoplectic when the slim, intellectual, raven-haired beauty in their text is represented by a buxom blonde with a blank stare.

Shirley drew the dragons for The Laughing Princess, put the psychedelic VW camper-van on the cover of The Hippies Who Meant It, and now she’s captured the schooners in my imagination and realized them on the pages of The River of Stones.

River of Stones: A Sequel to The Astreya Trilogy

River of Stones Cover

My new book, River of Stones, is in the final stages of the production process. It will be a book and an ebook in February 2020, and an audiobook later in the year.
Meanwhile, you can read the first chapter here at SeymourHamilton.com, or hear the chapter read by me at SoundCloud https://soundcloud.com/user-228066456
River of Stones begins 20 years after the end of The Astreya Trilogy. Mairi and Trogen, the twin daughter and son of Astreya and Lindey are 18, and have risen up the ranks to second mate.
Only three stones of power remain, and only the eight descendants of Zubin can wield them. Mairi, Trogen, and two of their cousins have the last four.
A ruthless and power-hungry man is intent on stealing the stones, murdering the three leaders of the fleet, and torturing the secrets of navigation from the next generation.
Grand master Astreya gives Mairi command of a ship with instructions to keep the younger members of his family far from danger.
Mairi must face political turmoil ashore, resolve conflicts with her twin brother Trogen, and lead her young crew through storms, dangerous passages, and battles at sea before she can discover the mysterious river of stones.

Here’s Chapter One
In which Cygnus suffers an unprovoked attack
The three-masted schooner Cygnus slipped her hawser from the buoy, her mainsail creaked aloft to catch a light wind, and the steersman spun the wheel to port. Helped by an ebbing tide, the vessel headed down the long narrow bay. Sailors hauled on the throat and peak halyards at the mizzen and foremasts, the two sails filling with a soft flap. The staysail and jib caught the evening breeze and the great ship gathered way, her soft-filled canvass providing just enough steerage way to avoid the clutter of small boats anchored in the harbour. Gathering speed on the port tack, she slid majestically past lighters, barges, coasters and fishing boats, her mast-heads higher than the crests of the steep-sided granite shoreline.
Mairi, first mate and daughter of Grand Master Astreya, stood beside the binnacle, watching the sails belly out as the wind freshened. Strands of her neck-length blonde hair escaped its tight braiding and blew across her face.
“Breezing up,” she said to the old sailing master who stood beside her.
“Enough to flutter the tell-tales,” said Betel, cocking his head to one side so that he could use his good eye.
Mairi knew that Betel was no longer able to see the threads of wool that waved from the shrouds to help the steersman, but the old man could tell the set of the sails from the wind on his cheek. After a long lifetime aboard, Betel was almost a part of Cygnus. Mairi understood the relationship between ship and man better than most, since she, too, was sea-born aboard the great ship.
Betel was one of the last of the Men of the Sea who had kept the great ships sailing for more than a century. She was part of a new generation, most of whom were land-born, but in that she and her twin brother, Trogen, had started their lives afloat, she shared a bond with the old man. Betel’s birth had been at least eighty years ago, whereas her nineteenth birthday was less than a week away, but all three were sea-born, and that made the ship their home and the sea their country.
Mairi took six steps to the port rail and looked along the length of the ship. Astern of the mainmast, the other second mate was tugging a tarpaulin over the main cargo hatch. Cam was a small, agile man in his late thirties. Mouse-coloured hair topped a clean- shaven face that wore an almost perpetual grin. As Mairi watched, a tall sailor came up the aft companionway, stopped beside Cam and knuckled his forehead. Ropes of hair that framed his stern black face were swept back and tied behind his neck. His impassive expression was that of a man who had been disciplined by disappointment.
“Seaman Marley, sir. Lookin’ for the mate of the starboard watch.”
Cam glanced up from his work, his hands still busy, then looked again. His eyes skimmed over a new shirt and breeks, standard Cygnus issue for all aboard, and then scanned a second time, noticing how well the man filled out what for most people was a comfortably loose uniform. He looked up into the man’s face, and raised his eyebrows a fraction: the new sailor was the first black man to serve aboard the big schooner.
“That’s me. Secure the other corner of this tarp. We’ll stretch it over and wedge it down. What ‘cha doin’ wi’ your hand?”
“I was saluting t’show respect, an’ that I’m followin’ your order, sir.”
“Well, stop it. I don’t care what you did on your last ship, but aboard Cygnus, I just want to hear you say, ‘aye’ or ‘right’ and get on with it. ‘Streya told me to expect a new man an’ that’s you, I’m thinkin’. I’m to show you the ropes. But since you’ve served on a schooner before, you know them all already, right?”
“No two ships belay their halliards the same place, sir.”
“The name’s Cam. Save the formalities for the mucky-mucks. That was a good answer, by the way. Now let’s get this cargo hatch covered. ‘Streya wants all secure afore we get to open sea. He’s standing lookout at the foremast shrouds, and any moment now he’ll be on his way to the quarterdeck. He’ll be walkin’ where you’re standin’ doing nothing, if you catch my drift.”
“The master’s standin’ lookout?”
“We’re light on crew, there’s small craft milling about, and he likes to see for himself. He’s on the port side, Navigator’s got the lee. First mate’s astern with the steersman. T’ other mate is on the quarterdeck, doin’ somethin’ important. You’ll know the navigator when you see her. Lindey looks a bit like her daughter Mairi, the mate what’s watchin’ us not workin’. Here, pull that strop over the coaming, and I’ll drive in a wedge to keep it there.”
The schooner gathered speed as she approached the buoy that marked a shoal at the harbour mouth. She heeled to starboard a few degrees as her sails caught a northwest sea wind. Astreya glanced at Lindey, mother of their twins Mairi and Trogen, who was crouched to look under the foresail boom. The wind off the sail blew her earlobe-length blonde hair back from her face. She raised an arm to point toward a little skipjack, idling under only one sail just beyond Cygnus wind shadow. Astreya nodded, and they both started for the quarterdeck. They were dressed alike in blue officers ’shirts and breeks, but in all else, they were a contrast. Astreya’s hair and beard were black, his skin dark tanned, and his green eyes were set amid lines drawn by staring into wind and weather. Lindey matched his stride beside him, though the crown of her head barely topped his shoulder. Different as they appeared, when they glanced at each other, understanding flowed between them.
At the aft cargo hatch, Cam drove in the last wedge. He cocked his head sideways to look up into the tall man’s eyes.
“Good job, Marley. But yer looking puzzled. What’s wrong?” “I’m not used to working alongside a mate.”
“The job takes two. The rest of the watch is securing the other hatches.
“Me last ship’s mate would’ve been tellin’ me what to do and watchin’ t’ make sure I did it the way he wanted. The ship before that, the bugger would have given me a clip over the ear to get me started.”
“That ain’t my style. Or the way this ship works. But don’t expect me to take your turn cleaning the heads or hold your hand when we’re thrashing around in a nor’easter. Look alive, ‘Streya’s coming aft, an’ we’ll have sails to trim in a jiffy. Me an’ you have the main.”
Since a course change was imminent, Mairi headed for the companionway to the navigation space, traditionally called the Forbidden Room. She saw a seaman nod to Lindey as he passed her on his way towards the bow.
Nobody saw the skipjack hoist her jib and change course to cut across the big schooner’s bows, because the little boat was concealed by the big schooner’s foresail and jib. The lookout’s shout came as the boat’s mast fouled Cygnus’ bowsprit. The schooner barely slowed as she first dismasted and then crushed the skipjack, which disappeared under the port bow. Astreya leaned over the rail to see what had happened.
The skipjack exploded.
Cygnus’ bowsprit shattered into shards of wood. Jibs and foresails bellied out of shape, no longer sustained by the mainstay. Debris rained into the sea and onto the deck where Astreya lay sprawled on his back. The ship’s side gaped, the bow festooned with the remains of the bowsprit and dolphin striker. Above, the severed end of the mainstay flailed as all three masts sagged sternward, robbed of support.
Mairi barely paused when she heard the first thud of impact with the little boat, thinking it perhaps caused by a random piece of flotsam that had escaped the lookout’s notice. She put her hand on the metal door and focused her mind to use the power of her clasp. Then came the explosion. Her hands flew up to her ears as the big vessel reverberated like a beaten drum. When the deafening moment passed, she heard shouts, the sound of running feet overhead, and a deep groaning like a huge animal in pain. Mairi turned and ran up the companionway. Betel, the most experienced man aboard, stood with his head thrown back, peering up at the masthead.
“What’s happening?” Mairi demanded.
Betel pointed to the three masts sagging sternwards. The mainstay hung slack from the head of the foremast, swinging uselessly. Again, Mairi heard groaning above the noise of wind and water. She felt vibration under her feet and realized that the masts were swaying, rubbing against the decks, and grinding in their steps on the keel. She ran to the port rail. Ahead, the bowsprit was a splintered stump. She struggled with a dilemma. The obvious response to trouble aloft was to turn head-to-wind. But if they luffed up under full sail with a broken mainstay, even a light wind could collapse all three masts.
“Turn downwind. Relieve the masts,” said the steersman quietly. She swung around, recognizing Marley, the new man.
“You’re right,” she murmured, and then raised her voice in command.
“Stand by to jibe! Brail up and strike sail! Haul them down!”
Sailors ran to obey her order.
“Jibe!” she shouted.
Marley nodded and spun the wheel. Betel’s mouth hung open in disbelief. To his mind, Mairi’s maneuver was the exact opposite of the tried-and-true response, which was to head upwind and then locate, confine, and deal with whatever had gone wrong. Ignoring his distress, Mairi encouraged men and women who were struggling to strike wind-filled, flapping canvass that resisted their efforts and threatened to toss them into the sea.
“Good call, Mairi.” Cam’s voice at her elbow calmed her.
“Cam! What’s going on? What’s happened?”
“Damn great ‘splosion. Holed the bow. ‘Streya’s down. Lindey lookin’ after him. Gotta go help her.”
During their exchange, confusion began to resolve into order. Men and women at the halyards, brails, and sheets collaborated to collapse and lower the sails until they could be manhandled into folds around the booms. Sailors loosed halyards and topping lifts and brought spars and booms amidships, tugged the foresails inboard and bundled them. With the sails no longer blocking her view, Mairi saw that the mainstay was looping from mast to mast to mast to the free-swinging length of heavy, tarred rope, that was no longer connected to the missing bowsprit.
What she saw still threatened disaster, but the masts no longer groaned. Cygnus was stable under bare poles, wind-driven south-east, out to sea.
“Steersman, hold her on this course.”
“Mairi!”
It was her mother’s voice, uncharacteristically shrill. Mairi looked along the deck and saw Astreya being carried astern, his head supported by Lindey, his body cradled in the linked arms of two sailors. Something wooden stuck out of a bloody smear on his right hip. Mairi stood, torn between love and duty. As the human stretcher carried her father towards the companionway, Lindey bent over Astreya, her face invisible behind her hair. She spoke without raising her head.
“Mairi, you’re in command.”

Nine days in England, November 2017

My nine days in England were time-warped.  First of all, there’s the time shift, which made me more acutely conscious of non-essential detail, and exhausted by dealing with a host of tiny, unimportant factors such as are involved in remembering that English light switches are upside down.  Not a life-threatening situation, such as is involved in stepping off the curb into traffic travelling too fast, too close, and on the wrong side of the road, but enough to ensure that it’s necessary to take breaks in between doing the things you planned to do.  Fortunately, there are pubs with “Real Ale” in them.

I lived in London for a year in 1958, when I was 16.  It was a grey city inhabited by grey people who had just escaped food rationing that had lasted for nearly a decade after the end of the war.  There were still great gaping holes where houses had stood for decades, sometimes centuries.  Across the street from where I lived on the fifth floor of 33 Baker Street was a gap about six Georgian houses wide and as many deep.  I could see wallpaper peeling from an inside wall exposed when what was left of the houses had been turned into rubble.  The zig zag outline of where stair treads met the wall led down to remnants of burned panelling and on into the broken brick and stone that filled where the basement had been.

I could climb out of a hatch at the top of the stairs onto the roof and look at a London in which only churches and cathedrals and monuments were taller than the five stories on which I stood beside chimney pots that dribbled soft-coal smoke into the sooty air.  It was the set from the Mary Poppins film, minus Dick Van Dyke’s misguided attempt at Cockney.

I googled it before I left Canada, or rather, I googled what had taken over the splendid line of stone-faced houses, each with its perfectly proportioned windows looking over the iron railings to the street where Homes and Watson had their famous abode.  In place of this intersection between  reality and fiction, a faceless edifice sprawls in anonymous 1980s red brick.

This time, thanks to Katherine’s accumulated points, we stayed at a Hilton on Trafalgar Square, across Cockspur Street from Canada House, with an unobstructed view of Nelson on his column from the upscale rooftop bar, and on to the red circle of the London Eye. Below in the square U2 were setting up for a concert, so I wasn’t able to introduce Katherine to the pigeons that sit on Landseer’s Lions or hear the splash of the fountains.

London is so full of people!  If all of them left, there would be beds and houses enough for every Canadian to move in.  Oddly, to me as we walked to the National Portrait Gallery, it felt like Toronto, perhaps around Spedina — except for the architecture.  The grey English people I remember have been replaced by every shape, shade and physiognamy of folk from around the world — and that’s not just the tourists.  In five days of breakfasts, lunches, teas, dinners and (frequent) drinks we were served by young people who, guessing by their accurate but accented words, had started their lives in Spain, Scotland, Poland, Ireland, Lithuania, Ukraine and points east.  The accents of London were still audible around us, but the voices often came from non-white people, Londoners born and bred.

We time-travelled to the court of Henry VIII, which occupies two  rooms of the National Portrait Gallery, putting faces to the descriptions Hilary Mantel puts into Thomas Cromwell’s mouth in his role as the narrator of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies.” A room full of eminent people, few of whom died naturally.

We re-set our temporal clocks and walked down into Churchill’s War Rooms, frozen in time right down to the (documented) sugar lumps on the desk of the officer at the east end of the table with four colours of telephone, Army, Navy, Air Force and Home Guard.  Eerie, particularly when the audio guide at my ear mentioned 1941 — the year I was born.

We visited the Wallace Collection, which like the Frick in New York, is the legacy of a man with a great deal of money and unusually good taste.  Franz Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier lives there.

So does Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing.  This charming little painting  is of a coquettishly smiling much-crinolined girl in a be-ribboned swing being admired by a delighted young well-dressed man who, whisper it softly, is exactly positioned for an up-skirt view.  More Boucher/Fragonard pink-and-plushy near nudes surround the room, all tastefully fig-leafed with gossamer and sanctioned because they represent nymphs, shepherds, gods and goddesses.

We travelled down the river to the famous observatory where I just had to stand astride zero degrees longitude.  Greenwhich is green, with lawns running  from the observatory, on down to the museum, although not the last few pub-and-shop standard London hundred yards to where  the famous Cutty Sark rests in her dry dock, surrounded by glass seas to her waterline.  If you walk under the glass, her copper-plated, oak on iron frame hull shows how and why she was so fast.

On my own next day, I went to the Kensington Museum of Natural History, where the Brachiosaurus altithorax I knew from days of yore has been replaced by a great blue whale.  Irony, perhaps?  Up the stairs I went to pay my respects to Charles Darwin.

I then took an escalator into the heart of the planet to deepen my understanding of tectonic plates, volcanoes, minerals and precious stones.   I found myself a head, shoulders and down to my elbows taller than just about everyone there: several classes-full of uniformed, unnaturally well behaved little English-of-all-shapes-and-colours children on a school trip.  I had not known much about the world’s three or four super-volcanoes, one of which will happen some day soon when several square miles of Yellowstone Park ascend skyward in a big bang like that of Krakatoa, which gave the world three years of really cold winters. Yellowstone will be much, much bigger.  So, if the rising seas don’t drown us, and we haven’t poisoned ourselves with plastics and heavy metals, and the greenhouse gasses haven’t choked us as the planet cooks up beyond the insanely optimistic two degrees of our un-met temperature-reduction goals, then wham, bang, thank you Gaia, ma’am, we’ll be cooled off by up to a decade of nuclear winters.  I doubt I’ll see it.  Lucky me.

And then we travelled to the gold-stone colleges of Oxford, happily not particularly heavily inhabited by tourists and thus up-beat with students on  bicycles and on foot hurrying into their privileged lives studded with lectures, essays, moments of elation and subsequent heartbreak before final exams, graduation and one of the more assured transitions into cushy careers.  In a small, truly ancient pub next to the Bodlian we downed  Real Ale and ate mushroom stroganoff, flanked by a pair of grad students plotting their way to professorial favour. For the first time in our trip, the publican was indigenous to the point (pint?) of type casting.  On the wall were photos of Morse, that is, the actor who played him during interminable television seasons of murder and mayhem.

By afternoon we found our way along ever-diminishing roads through  countryside in which we would not have been surprised to see Frodo Baggins emerging between hedges below  the finger-post of one of the many footpaths that lead to places such as Shipton under Wychwood or the Four Shire Stone.  The satnav in our rented Golf took us to Aston Subedge, not far from Chipping Camden.  A lane between fields led to our B&B.

Welcomed by our host at the door of what was to be our living room for two days, we drank tea before a fire of oak-wood.  Up the creaking stairs, held up by great beams of oak recycled from ships of the line, war surplus after the Battle of Trafalgar, was our bedroom and palatial en-suite with shower, claw-foot tub, double sink, handsome throne and  even bidet.  In the quiet evening — and by Ottawa standards more than an hour early — we heard owls, presumably carrying messages to and from Hogwarts.

For two days we visited a kaleidoscope of gold-stone villages and towns with fictional-sounding names.  We took coffee in Bourton on the Water, which has a high street and fast-running stream that is beyond picturesque.

Along the narrow road to Kingham, charmingly lifted out of a story-book we found a church, accessible through a lych  gate into its churchyard, overlooking a village green with a cricket pitch and soccer field.  A huge tree along the path to the 600-year-old church sported a Narnia-style lantern, anachronistically equipped with an ecologically correct bulb.

In the adjoining village hall, a friendly soul gave us directions to The Wild Rabbit, a “really posh” restaurant where for a goodly sum of money we were served excellent food and drink.

The name Burford stuck in both our minds for reasons we could not fathom, so we went there.  The high street runs down a steep hill, the buildings getting older and older and more and more picturesque until they surround a truly fascinating church built in 1175, and re-modelled four times until  1475, when they decided that was enough.  Approached through its cottages for clergy and the like, the spire rises above the unchanged centre of the town, tended by the people who  worshipped, buried their dead, bequeathed almshouses, and did the occasional murder.  The church is still discharging its functions in this more secular age.

Here in 1649, Oliver Cromwell’s army corralled around 350 mutineers from  his New Model Army in the church, and shot three of them. This was unusually lenient for the time, during which England was experimenting with what might be called a republic.  Had the mutiny of those known as Levellers not been quashed, others might have joined their quite legitimate protest and, had their status been acknowledged, it’s conceivable (though not likely) that the English constitution might have more resembled the American with respect to the “of the people” idea that took England another few hundred years to approximate.

Woodstock (the original one) is the village next which Blenheim Palace stands in all its opulence within the expansive grounds sculpted from  nature by Capability Brown, showing what he could do granted virtually unlimited funds.

The palace is the size of a shopping mall, and just as commercial, processing the day we were there at least three coaches and 1,500 private cars full to a total of more than 5,000 people at an average of £40 pounds each, which not counting what they ate at several cafes or bought at the gift shop, adds up to a total of at least £20,000. Even after paying the army of gardeners, ticket-takers, cleaners, guides, and so forth, there has been enough to do some serious modifications (the gift shop), upgrades (washrooms), restorations (just about everywhere) and still have enough to mount light shows, (dubious) art exhibits, craft fairs and the maintenance of several rooms containing Churchill memorabilia.  In the end, this over-the-top celebration of the victor of Blenheim seems wretchedly excessive, even if a great number of English people cheerfully part with their cash to see its grandeur.  But then, the English like admiring the history of those who have been and still are the ruling classes.

I read the newspapers each day, and asked myself how it was and is that the older generations and working people of England are leaving Europe and taking with them the declared hopes of younger people plus Scotland, Wales and Ireland, whether they want it or not. The lying cynicism of both sides in the campaign is exceeded only by the dismal incompetence that has followed.  There seems to have been no respect for thoughtful debate and due process.  It’a 21st Century populism as in “the people have spoken” — sure they have, in a referendum coopered together by Cameron who then scarpered leaving it up to May to blunder ahead with what amongst other things will change the constitution by stealth and undermine the primacy of parliament that took centuries to evolve. Everyone is ignoring an inescapable future in some pious hope that a new renaissance and an economic boom rivalling the industrial revolution are just around the corner when the shackles of the free market fall from the hands of true Britons everywhere.

Right. Just how is that going to happen? Finance?  Not likely.  Nothing is more mobile than money, and it’s already leaking out of London. In AI and digital?  Certainly not the way the UK dominated the world in the era of steam power (the dark satanic mills, remember?) or before that in wool (let’s hear it for the Highland Clearances!).  How about  the happy days of sugar, coffee, tea and the slave trade?  Someone always pays, and it’s going to be the folks at the bottom who were sadly instrumental in pulling the heap down on their own heads.

If you live in a 300 year old house that you’ve bought and refurbished with every modern convenience using the money you made trading in the City of London’s financially overheated market, then when you look out your  leaded window beyond the iron gate at the end of your walkway at the inexpressibly beautiful countryside where your daughter’s horse is cropping the lush green grass, on over the soft hills into the blue distance where perfect little villages nestle in the valleys, and you sip your Earl Grey and eat marmalade and toast made from artisanal bread served beside free-range eggs and bacon from heritage pigs, then surely it’s easy for you to do the mental equivalent of pulling the duvet over your head and going back to an English sleep in which nothing can possibly go wrong.

As a happy visitor, I enjoyed every minute of that privileged lifestyle.

Tales of Rebels and of the Sea. Also, stories about Dragons.