Travel, Uncategorized

Old-Timey Travel for the Holiday Deprived

Exotic vacations are not easy to come by right now. Even if a vaccine has been announced, it will be a few months yet before travel is a thing any sane person really wants to do. Most nations have closed borders or have imposed tight restrictions, usually a stick up the nose and 14 days in solitary.

Luckily, if you’ve read this far it’s a sign that you have the gift of literacy, which means that the world is essentially your beach bungalow. That’s right, I’m talking about books. I am here to help you holiday interiorly with some travel-writing classics (or at least interesting old travel-writing oddities), which I have lovingly handpicked from the Dolan e-Reader Library.

1 Travels in Persia

Born in 1634 to a wealthy merchant and jeweller to the Place Dauphin, Sir Jean Chardin is best known for writing ten volumes documenting life in Persia and the Near East. Collectively published as The Travels of Sir John Chardin, the whole set has never been translated into English but you can get Travels in Persia 1672-1677 from Dover Publications (2012). Chardin set off on his first journey to Persia in 1664, travelling via Constantinople and the Black Sea. In his account of this first trip he describes meeting and enjoying the patronage of Shah Abbas II of Persia and witnessing the coronation of Soleymān. In 1676 he returned to Persia and India and then went back to France via the Cape of Good Hope in 1677. Soon afterwards he fled French prosecution of Protestants and settled in England.

Sir John Chardin

2. The Naturalist on the River Amazons

Not only did Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892) write the first scientific account of mimicry in animals, he also wrote this classic of natural history, a description of his expedition to the Amazon jungle with Alfred Russel Wallace. Seeing as he was a nineteenth-century scientist, there is an awful lot about killing animals to get ‘specimens’, which is off-putting for the squeamish, ie me. But skipping over those bits, there are some lovely descriptions of plants and animals and his enthusiasm for his vocation is infectious.

Henry Walter Bates. Photograph. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Henry Walter Bates. Photograph. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

3. The Peregrinations of a Pariah (Pérégrinations d’une paria)

I confess that I haven’t read this one yet but I really want to because Flora Tristan is a pretty fascinating figure. She was born in 1803 to a Peruvian-Spanish dad (a colonel in the Spanish Navy) and a French mother. Her father died when she was very young and the family fell on hard times. When she was in her twenties she travelled to Peru to claim her inheritance from her uncle, Viceroy of Peru, who failed to cough up. She was there from 1833 to 1834, after Independence ,when the country was erupting in territorial disputes. While she didn’t get her inheritance, she did keep a travel diary, which was published in France in 1838. Oh yeah, and then she became the mother of feminism and of popular communitarian socialism, insisting that feminism was an essential step in liberating the working class. Plus she was Gaugin’s granny.

4. Travels in the Interior of Africa

Mungo Park (1771-1806) was a Scottish surgeon and botanist who hied off to Africa in his twenties to explore the upper Niger River. In 1779 he published a detailed narrative of his exploration, titled Travels in the Interior of Africa in which he hypothesizes that the Niger and Congo join to become the same river, a subject of ancient debate. After a short time practising medicine in Peebles, the British government invited him to lead another expedition to Niger and he jumped at the chance. Unfortunately he died during the second expedition, drowning after jumping into the Bussa Rapids to evade an attack.

5. Hashish: A Smuggler’s Tale (Le Crosière)

1946 Penguin Edition

Henri De Monfreid (1879-1974) was a bit of a rogue, but was he really as much of a rogue as he would have us believe? That is what I kept wondering reading this entertaining account of smuggling hashish from Greece to Egypt. Apart from that he builds dhows, runs guns, dives for pearls, sails hither and yon and converts to Islam…and who knows what all. After all these adventures on the Red Sea he settled down to write about 70 books. One of them is this one: Hashish: A Smuggler’s Tale, translated here by Helen Buchanan Bell.

Portrait in the New York Times

6. 1786-1857: Travels through Russia, Siberia, Poland, Austria, Saxony, Prussia, Hanover, &c, &c, Undertaken During the Years 1822, 1823, and 1824, While Suffering From Total Blindness, and Comprising an Account of the Author Being Conducted a State Prisoner From the Eastern Parts of Siberia (2 volumes; London: G. B. Whittaker, 1825)

Better title.

They went in for long titles back then, OK? James Holman (1786-1857) began life in Exeter, joined the British Royal Navy, contracted a mystery illness off the coast of the Americas and ended up completely blind at the age of 25. After that he decided to go off travelling everywhere. He was the first blind man to circumnavigate the globe and visited every inhabited continent. If you have trouble trawling through the original account of James Holman, there is a modern biography of him that is highly recommended by my brother: A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts.

7. Travels in West Africa

This one is available for free thanks to some kind volunteers. It was written by Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1862-1900), who led a fairly secluded life before upping sticks and charging about western and equatorial Africa. Her motivation, it seems, was to gather research on African religion to finish a book started by her late father George Kingsley, who himself had traveled quite a lot. This trip produced two books: Travels in West Africa (1897) and West African Studies (1899). In the Second Boer War she volunteered as a nurse, caught typhoid and died. According to her wishes she was buried at the bottom of the sea underneath the continent she loved.

This is a miniscule sample of travel stories but hopefully it has whet your appetite. If you’d like to travel further afield, why not check out this list of great women’s travel books or join me on a trip to Saudi Arabia as I describe life in the cloistered Kingdom in my book Teacher, We Girls! Grab a book, sit back and relax. You even have plenty of leg room. Bon voyage!

Uncategorized

In the Falls, Reading the Walls

Last week we moved to a place near Falls Road, the heart of Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter, where most residents are Catholic and Irish Republican who, as a group, support the use and transmission of the Gaelic language (hence Gaeltacht, which means ‘Gaelic speaking’).

One of the first things I noticed walking in the neighborhood is the number and nature of the murals and signs. They seem to be doing lots of things, rhetorically speaking: establishing the shared identity and politics of the neighborhood; building morale by stressing milestones and successes of the community; inspiring people to emulate specific heroes; rousing empathy for martyrs; connecting the Irish independence movement with those of other peoples around the world; teaching tourists a bit about Republican history; and keeping the struggle alive–every time you walk to the shop, for example, you will be reminded that many families of those who were massacred have not yet received apologies, and that the UK Government continues to run down the clock on the inquiry into the brutal assassination of Human Rights Lawyer Pat Finucane, in spite of the UK Supreme Court deciding there has never been a human-rights-compliant inquiry into his death.

Finucane, who had successfully challenged the British Government in several human rights cases, was murdered at the breakfast table in front of his three children in 1989

As a tourist with a pretty shaky understanding of Irish history, I’ve been studying the murals with great interest. Personally, as they often prompt me to find out more, they seem like a pretty effective device for communicating news and history that has often been ignored or suppressed by other media outlets.

One of the biggest figures in the murals in our part of town feature James Connolly (1868-1916); in fact, there’s a statue of him just a couple of blocks from our place. He was the founder of the Irish Socialist Republican Party and the Irish Citizens Army, which defended workers and strikers from the frequent brutality of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. But what he is most remembered for is being effectively the Commander-in-Chief of the Easter Rising , an armed insurrection against British Rule in Ireland that began on 24 April, 1916. That insurrection failed and he was shot by firing squad–he had to be tied to a chair because injuries he’d sustained in the Rising made him too weak to stand. W.B. Yeats mentions him in the poem “Easter 1916” and the Republican folk band The Wolfe Tones have a whole song about him.

Released in 1968, this song reached number 15 in the Irish pop charts

Although the Rising failed in the short term, it became one of the most galvanizing events in Republican history. Outrage about the execution of the rebels, particularly Connolly’s, resulted in greater awareness of their goals throughout Ireland and the world. This resulted in more popular support. It was only five years later, in May 1921, that the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed, providing for the establishment of an Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion and allowing Northern Ireland (formed in 1920) to opt out of the Irish Free State, which it promptly did.

Other heroes of the Easter Rising appear frequently in the Falls. For example, just a couple of blocks from us, is this portrait of Countess Constance Markievicz. The daughter of the Arctic explorer Sir Henry Gore-Booth, she and her sister Eva were both political activists. Constance was hugely inspired by Connolly and even designed the uniforms and composed the anthem for the Irish Citizens Army. She was in the thick of the fighting during the uprising, killing a policeman and wounding a British sniper. At her court martial, she said, “I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.” She was sentenced to death but because she was a woman (and possibly because she came from the upper classes), the court commuted the sentence to life in prison. On learning this, she said to her captors, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” She later became the first woman elected to the United Kingdom House of Commons as a member for Sinn Féin, then the first Irish female cabinet minister.

Getting her eye in in 1915

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 split Republicans into two camps: the pro-treaty Provisional Government and the anti-treaty IRA. The latter group saw the treaty as a betrayal of their goal of a free and united Ireland. That split divided the nation in the Irish Civil War and its effects can be seen even today in Irish politics.

In our neighborhood, it’s pretty clear that the muralists are anti-treaty. There is nary a sketch of Michael Collins, for example, who was Chairman of the Provisional Government until his assassination in 1922. Most of the figures in this mural, for example, were anti-treaty figures.

James Connolly, Éamon de Valera, Liam Lynch, Pádraig Pearse and others I don’t know.

One dominant theme in the murals, and one I didn’t expect, is Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Actually Irishmen fought for both sides in this struggle, and the majority of Irish supported Franco because they perceived the war as a clash between Catholicism and Socialism. The Irish Brigade fought on the Nationalist side for Franco. On the other side, left-leaning Republican Frank Ryan and the Irish Communist Party organized for about 200 Republicans to join the fight against Franco among the International Brigades, army units from all over the world recruited by Communist recruiters.

Mural honoring the XV International Brigade near the Peace Wall

Spain pops up elsewhere, too. At the top of our street is this expression of solidarity with the Catalan Independence Movement:

The Republicans claim common cause with many other groups fighting for human rights against hostile state actors.

Since 1963, the Free Papua movement has waged a low-intensity guerilla war against Indonesian occupiers.
Tamil Eelam is a proposed independent state that Tamils hope to create in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
The murder of George Floyd by the white police officer Derek Chauvin highlighted systemic racism in the United States
Abdullah Öcalan is a political prisoner, a Kurdish leftist political theoretician and one of the founding members of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party
Leila Khaled is a Palestinian refugee and a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

And then there are the pictorial tributes and reminders of the Troubles, especially massacres committed by British troops on civilians and also the sacrifice made by the Hunger Strikers who were fighting for the right to be treated as political prisoners.

Kieran Nugent, imprisoned in Crumlin Road Jail aka the ‘Maze’, was the first ‘blanket man’, refusing to wear a prison uniform because he considered himself a political prisoner

The’Usual Suspects’ here are (from left to right) Brian Nelson, Media cover-ups, British Intelligence, Loyalist Death Squads, Government Ministers, British Army, RUC, PSNI, Special Branch.

And, almost an afterthought, is the most pressing issue that we are all facing now (apart from Covid-19, that is):

Uncategorized

20 Scenes of War and Peace

  1. Leo Tolstoy
“Portrait of Leo Tolstoy” (1887) by Ilya Repin

Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece was published in its entirety in 1869, 57 years after the French Invasion of Russia, but it was a period that still had a hold on many writers and artists throughout Russia and Europe. Tchaikovsky, for example, composed his commemorative “1812 Overture” in 1880.

2. The Emperors

“Emperor Alexander I and Emperor Napoleon in the Hunt” (1908).

Ilya Repin was a close friend of the Tolstoys and painted portraits of Leo, his wife and children. Here he also addresses the theme of Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, nearly 100 years after the Invasion. Neither of the Emperors come off particularly well.

3. Hélène

Portrait of Hanna Vańkovič (Sołtan)” c.1805, by Jan Rostem

“The princess Hélène smiled. She rose with the same unchanging smile with which she had first entered the room—the smile of a perfectly beautiful woman. With a slight rustle of her white dress trimmed with moss and ivy, with a gleam of white shoulders, glossy hair and sparkling diamonds, she passed between the men who made way for her, not looking at any of them but smiling on all, as if graciously allowing each the privilege of admiring her beautiful figure and shapely shoulders, back, and bosom—which, in the fashion of those days were very much exposed—and she seemed to bring the glamour of a ballroom with her as she moved towards Anna Pavlovna.” (Page 12)

Hélène not only has a French name, but she also embodies what Tolstoy seems to regard as the vices of Napoleonic France. She is visually charming but empty-headed and artificial. She has no respect for her husband at all, to the point that she considers marrying two other men while still married to him. She fancies herself an intellectual and conducts a popular salon but is described as a vicious nincompoop.

4. Marya Bolkonskaya

Portrait of a Girl” by Alexey Venetsianov

“Princess Marya, sighed and glanced into the mirror which stood on her right. It reflected a weak, ungraceful figure and thin face. Her eyes, always sad, now looked with particular hopelessness at her reflection in the glass. ‘She flatters me,’ thought the princess, turning away and continuing to read. But Julie did not flatter her friend: the princess’s eyes—large, deep, and luminous (it seemed as if at times there radiated from them shafts of warm light) were so beautiful that very often in spite of the plain-ness of her face they gave her an attraction more powerful than that of beauty.” (Page 96)

If Hélène represents the sordid vanity of Napoleonic France, Princess Marya represents the simple, soulful piety of Russia. She puts up with some pretty shocking abuse from her crusty old dad, tends to the souls of the poor peasantry and doesn’t even mind when she catches a one of her suitors pashing with her lady-in-waiting.

5. Duel Between Pierre and Dolokhov

The Duel” by I.E. Repin

“The spot chosen for the duel was some eighty paces from the road where the sledges had been left, in a small clearing in the pine forest covered with melting snow, the frost having begun to break up during the last few days. The antagonists stood forty paces apart at the farther edge of the clearing. The seconds, measuring the paces, left tracks in the deep wet snow between the place where they had been standing and Nevitsky’s and Dolokhov’s sabres, which were stuck in the ground ten paces apart to mark the barrier.” (p.337)

6. Nikolai Rostov Meets Prince Alexander

Portrait of Alexander I of Russia by unknown artist

“The Emperor drew level with Rostov and halted. Alexander’s face was even more beautiful than it had been three days before at the review. It shone with such gaiety and youth, such innocent youth, that it suggested the liveliness of a fourteen-year-old boy, and yet it was the face of the majestic Emperor.” (p. 271)

7. Andrei Bolkonsky Meets Kutuzov Before the Battle of Austerlitz

Portrait of M.I. Kutuzov-Smolensky” by Roman Maksimovich Volkovsky

“Prince Andrei glanced at Kutuzov’s face only a foot distant from him and involuntarily noticed the carefully washed seams of the scar near his temple, where an Ismail bullet had pierced his skull, and the empty eye-socket. ‘Yes, he has a right to speak so calmly of those men’s death,’ thought Bolkonsky.” (P.180)

8. Battle of Austerlitz

Battle of Austerlitz” Charles Thévenin

“Just as in a clock the result of the complicated motion of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely a slow and regular movement of the hands which show the time, so the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French—all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, fear and enthusiasm—was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three Emperors—that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.” (p.274)

9. Andrei is Wounded at Austerlitz

El Herido” (The Wounded Man) by Goya

‘What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,’ thought he, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not, and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with grey clouds gliding slowly across it.” (p.299)

10. Natasha Rostov

Portrait of Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaevna, youngest daughter of Emperor Nicholas I, by Karl Pavlovich Brullov (previously thought to be a portrait of U.M. Smirnova)

“Natasha laughed at every word he said or that she said to herself, not because what they were saying was amusing, but because she felt happy and was unable to control her joy which expressed itself by laughter.” (p.321)

11. Catoptromancy (Divination by Mirror and Candle)

Svetlana Guessing Her Future” (1836) by Karl Bryllov

“She sat a long time looking at the receding line of candles reflected in the glasses and expecting (from tales she had heard) to see a coffin or him, Prince Andrei, in that last dim, indistinctly outlined, square. But ready as she was to take the smallest speck for the image of a man or coffin, she saw nothing. She began blinking rapidly and moved away from the looking glass.” (p. 570)

12. The Wolf Hunt

“Wolf hunting with Borzois” by Evgenii Tikhmenev

“The angry borzois whined, and getting free of the leash rushed past the horses’ feet at the wolf. The wolf paused, turned its heavy forehead towards the dogs awkwardly, like a man suffering from the quinsy, and still slightly swaying from side to side, gave a couple of leaps and with a swish of its tail disappeared into the skirt of the wood.”  (page 533-534)

13. Alpatych Goes to Smolensk

“Road in the Rye” by Grigory Myasoedova

“‘Women, women! Women’s fuss!’ muttered Alpatych to himself and started on his journey, looking round at the fields of yellow rye and the still green, thickly growing oats, and at other quite black fields just being ploughed a second time.

“As he went along he looked with pleasure at the year’s splendid crop of corn, scrutinized the strips of rye-field which here and there were already being reaped, made his calculations as to the sowing and the harvest, and asked himself whether he had not forgotten any of the prince’s orders.” (p.744)

14. The Battle of Borodino

Detail from Franz Roubad’s panoramic painting of the Battle of Borodino (unveiled 1911)

“Over the whole field, previously so gaily beautiful with the glitter of bayonets and cloudlets of smoke in the morning sun, there now spread a mist of damp and smoke and a strange acid smell of saltpetre and blood. Clouds gathered, and drops of rain began to fall on the dead and wounded, on the frightened, exhausted, and hesitating men, as if to say: ‘Enough, men! Enough! Cease…Come to your senses! What are you doing?'” (p.878)

15. The French Army Loots Moscow

Scene from the Borodin Panorama Museum

“There were masses of wealth and there seemed no end to it. All around the quarters occupied by the French were other regions still unexplored and unoccupied where, they thought, yet greater riches might be found. And Moscow engulfed the army every deeper and deeper. When water is spilt on dry ground both the dry ground and the water disappear and mud results; and in the same way the entry of the famished army into the rich and deserted city resulted in fires and looting and the destruction of both the army and the wealthy city.” (p.963)

16. Moscow Burns

Fire of Moscow from 15-18 September” by A. Smirnov

“Deserted Moscow had to burn as inevitably as a heap of shavings has to burn on which sparks continually fall for several days. A town built of wood where scarcely a day passes without conflagrations when the house-owners are in residence and a police force is present, cannot help burning when its inhabitants have left it and it is occupied by soldiers who smoke pipes, make camp-fires of the Senate chairs in the Senate Square and cook themselves meals twice a day.” (p.963)

17. Execution of a Workman

“The Shooting of Moscow Arsonists by the French” (1898) by Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin

“Probably a word of command was given and was followed by the reports of eight muskets; but try as he would Pierre could not afterwards remember having heard the slightest sound of the shots. He only saw how the workman suddenly sank down on the cords that held him, how blood showed itself in two places, how the ropes slackened under the weight of the hanging body, and how the workman sat down, his head hanging unnaturally and one leg bent under him.” (p. 1041)

18. Andrei is mortally wounded

In the Garden of Gethsemane” (1869) by Nikoai Ge

“He remembered that he had now a new source of happiness and that this happiness had something to do with the Gospels. That was why he asked for a copy of them. The uncomfortable position in which they had put him and turned him over, again confused his thoughts, and when he came to himself a third time it was in the complete stillness of the night. Everybody near him was sleeping. A cricket chirped from across the passage; someone was shouting and singing in the street; cockroaches rustled on the table, on the icons, and on the walls, and a big fly flopped at the head of his bed and around the candle beside him, the wick of which was charred and had shaped itself like a mushroom.” (p.987)

19. The Retreat

Retreat from Moscow” (1854) by Franciszek Kostrzewski

“And the cavalry, with spurs and sabres urging on horses that could scarcely move, trotted with much effort to the column presented to them–that is to say, to a crowd of Frenchmen stark with cold, frost-bitten and starving–and the column that had been presented to them threw down its arms and surrendered, as it had long been anxious to do.” (p.1166)

20. Napoleon

“Napoleon Bonaparte Abdicated at Fontainebleau” (1845), by Paul Delaroche

“‘C’est grand!’ say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil, but only ‘grand‘ and ‘not grand‘. Grand is good, not grand is bad. Grand is the characteristic, in their conception, of some special animals called ‘heroes’. And Napoleon escaping home in a warm fur coat and leaving to perish those who were not merely his comrades but were (in his opinion) men he had brought there, feels que c’est grand, and his soul is tranquil.” (p.1152)

Uncategorized

Belfast: Troubles on My Mind

We weren’t looking for trouble, honestly. We arrived in Belfast in early July, after months of hunkering down in Portland. Apart from the fact that covid-19 was getting its teeny little hooks into an ever widening portion of the locals, cops had been using up tear gas and pepper spray like it was going out of fashion. All we wanted now was a little bit of peace. What better place to find it, I thought, than in a tiny little suburb on the outskirts of boring old Belfast?

When I looked out of the window on that first morning, I noticed that the street was positively festooned with Union Jacks and pennants of red, white and blue. There were flags in the windows and all in all the sense of a holiday mood. I realized, with some embarrassment and not a little dread, that we’d landed in East Belfast on the eve of marching season. Not just East Belfast, either, but a Loyalist holdout.

The row house we were staying in looked out on a pretty green area called Marsh-Wiggle Park, a reference to a character invented by C.S. Lewis, native son of Belfast. From our vantage point on the upper storey, starting from about July 9, we saw men and boys lugging pallets into a clearing and stacking them up as high as they could. The pallets were supplemented with whatever scrap wood they’d been saving up over the year–chairs, doors, desks, even a bicycle. The pile grew and grew and when it was perfected, on the 11th, someone put a couple of Irish Republican flags on top.

I won’t lie, the sight of this spiteful little stack of sticks gave me an unpleasant feeling. The fact that my husband and I are both descendants of Irish Catholic families made it feel a little too close to home. Even if we were in no immediate danger, it was scary. Maybe it was my imagination, but the air in general was a little electric. In fact I don’t think it was my imagination though because there were violent clashes on the nights of July 10 and 11. Even if they were small compared to those of previous years, it was a nail-biting novelty for me. Late on the eleventh, we saw a glow in the sky and heard boisterous singing.

Clean-up crew

Then, the next day, the morning of the twelfth, we heard the boom of drums and shrill whistle of fifes. This surprised me, as I’d read that the orange people intended to celebrate safely at home, whatever that would entail. Listening to Ian Paisley’s greatest rants? But lo, ten minutes later we saw a motley collection of portly musicians marching down the street followed by families cheering and waving Union Jacks. I rushed outside to get footage, nervously wondering if I would be recognized as the Enemy. No one seemed to notice me though.

A couple of days later, we’d ‘done our time’ in quarantine and I ventured out in my mask to see something of the city. Aside from all the Union Jacks hanging from streetlights, my first impression was that of a shuttered city. Lockdown restrictions had not yet been lifted and there were very few people out and about. The rows of shuttered shops had a melancholy, forlorn feeling. Bus stop ads offered public health advice. In many windows were children’s drawings of rainbows–a symbol of the National Health Service, a ‘rainbow in the rain’.

Castlereagh Street

One place where there was a big crowd was on a little street near Ballymacarett Orange Hall. Quite a large crowd was drinking and mingling. I decided not to take a picture of the people because I didn’t want to provoke anyone. Several months of isolation combined with nervousness about unfamiliar sectarian triggers led me to bustle on as innocuously as possible. Unfortunately this was not very innocuously at all as I was the only person in the city wearing a mask.

Flegs festooning Ballymacarett Orange Hall

In this part of town there were several murals and flags sporting the logo of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group that is officially listed as a terrorist organization by the United Kingdom and Ireland. While most people think of the Troubles in terms of I.R.A. bombings, the U.V.F. was responsible for the deadliest attack of the conflict, the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which killed 33 civilians (and 1 full-term unborn child) and wounded 300.

UVF Flag flying proudly on Tates Avenue Bridge

Like I say, we weren’t looking for trouble but it was hard for me not to notice all this. So I decided to go on the ‘Belfast Troubles Walking Tour’ with local man Arthur McGee. I don’t want to say too much about that because if you come here you should take it. Just one of the many, many interesting things we learned on the tour was the story of the Northern Bank robbery on December 2004, the biggest heist in British history. The thieves got away with £26.5 million in pounds sterling, cash, and the case has never been solved.

The bank is right next to the City Hall

In my next post, I plan to write about fiction set in Belfast during the Troubles. Stay tuned!

Original Fiction, Uncategorized

The Daemons Next Door

Angela opened the fridge door and took out a vegetarian sausage. She started cooking it on a frying pan when suddenly she saw that the sausage had a little face. The face was furious and started yelling at Angela, telling her that she wasn’t even cooking it properly—she had to remove the plastic casing first and to put more oil in the pan. Angela peeled the plastic off as the sausage continued to berate her. Then she hurriedly got more oil and poured it in but it turned out to be gasoline and the kitchen exploded in a fireball.

Angela woke up with a scream. Sitting next to her in the darkness, watching her intently with big pop eyes, sat Melinoë. Angela screamed again.

 

Gorgona_pushkin

 

“What is the matter with you?” Angela cried.

“Was it scary?” Melinoë asked eagerly.

“Huh? Yes, it was scary.”

Melinoë nodded and smiled a little bit.

“That’s good. I thought it might not work.”

“What? Wait a minute, did you do this?” Angela asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Of course. Nightmares are my forte, I told you. I don’t usually get to see the people dreaming though. It’s usually long-distance, so I have no idea how effective they are.”

Angela clutched her head in her hands and groaned.

“Let’s get something straight,” she said at last. “I may be sharing a room with you, but I’m not your guinea pig. Please don’t give me any more nightmares, OK?”

“Why not?” Melinoë put her head on one side, bird like.

“Because it’s hard enough getting used to this place without bedwetting added to the mix, OK?”

“You didn’t like it?”

“No, I didn’t like it.”

“Well what about when I change shape? Can I still do that?”

“You can do that all you like. Go crazy. Just don’t mess with my slee—agh! For the love of—”

Angela found herself looking at a person who was made entirely of wriggling mice.

“OK,” Angela clenched her teeth, “As I said, that’s totally fine. Just let me get some sleep.”

 

***

 

When Angela arrived at the Hades household dining room, Persephone and her two daughters were already daintily addressing a breakfast of pomegranate smoothies, ambrosia cups and bread made with Elysian wheat. Cerberos was sitting next to Persephone, pitifully resting on of his heads on the table hoping for a scrap of bread.

“Good morning, Angela,” Persephone said. “Did you sleep well?”

Melinoë bit her lip and shot Angela a warning glance.

“Oh, yes, I slept great, thank you,” Angela smiled.

“Good,” Persephone smiled. “I thought later, you might come up to the women’s room; we want to prepare you for your ceremony tomorrow.”

“My what?” Angela said.

“You know, your ceremonial dipping in the Acheron, to symbolize your homecoming.”

“Ah.”

“We need to dress you and do your hair and make-up,” said Elpis, “You will look so beautiful!”

“Oh, a kind of makeover?” Angela asked. “That sounds fun.”

“But before that,” Melinoë interrupted, “I can take Angelia over to introduce her to the next-door neighbors.”

Must you?” sighed Persephone, “They’re so ghastly.”

 “Yes I must,” Melinoë pouted. “They’re really cool and Achlys said they all want to meet her.”

“All right, but be sure you get back before dinner.”

 

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Pinax of Persephone opening the “Likon Mystikon”

 

Melinoë took Angela’s hand and the two hurried out of the great cold mansion, down the steps and down the street to a house constructed of grey-veined black marble. Running along the top of six great black columns was a golden architrave engraved with scenes of murder and mayhem. As they entered the courtyard, Angela gasped at the sight of a rectangular pool filled with some viscous red liquid.

“Is…is that blood?” she whispered.

“Yes,” Melinoë murmured. “Isn’t it amazing? I really like the aesthetics here. Oops, there are the Keres—get back behind this pillar. They’re real hellions. One’s full of violent death, the other one’s the personification of disease in wartime.”

From their hiding place, they observed twin girls running at top speed around the blood pool. Both wore black tunics and wings reminiscent of black swans. One was brandishing a knife and, judging by her ferocious expression, fully intended to do the other one an injury. The other was surrounded by a mist of mosquitoes, black smoke and an indescribably rotten stench. After three or four circuits of the pool, they stopped running and paused to gather up handfuls of blood, which they drank thirstily.

 

keres

 

“Let’s go to the women’s room. It’s usually quieter there.”

Quietly, so as not to alert the twins, Angela and Melinoë walked upstairs and found themselves in a large room containing a big loom. Around it sat three serious women, all dressed in white. One was heavily pregnant and had a distracted air. Another held a long piece of wood with notches in it. The third held a pair of scissors.

“They’re the Moirai,” Melinoë murmured. “They decide how long people live. The pregnant one is Clotho. She’s spinning thread of a life from a distaff onto a spindle. Lachesis has the measuring rod—she decides the length of a life. And Atropos holds the shears—she does the snipping.”

Angela gaped at them, fascinated.

“They do that for every single person?” she asked.

“Yes, they’re always working. Come on, let’s find Nyx.”

 

vischer fates 1530

 

 

Melinoë took Angela’s arm and pulled her along a corridor toward a bedroom with richly painted walls. A woman dressed in diaphanous dark blue reclined on a richly decorated couch. She had long silky dark hair and her face was alarmingly pale except for black eyes, from which there flowed rivulets of what looked like black ink. She barely noticed the girls come in but made a slight gesture with her wrist, which seemed to acknowledge their presence.

“Praises Auntie Nyx,” Melinoë curtsied, “Angelia is back.”

This made Nyx pay attention. She lifted herself on her elbow and surveyed the newcomer.

“That’s not Angelia,” she said. “She doesn’t have that catastrophic aura. Who is this?”

“You’re right auntie,” said Melinoë, “Her name is really Angela. But you can’t tell anyone, OK? Persephone’s planning to fool Hera into thinking she’s her long-lost daughter Angelia.”

“Oh, I see. Because the real Angelia has gone AWOL,” she sighed and lowered herself back. “What a lot of trouble. Persephone has so much energy. Well, never mind. Welcome to Hades, dear. Will you girls have some grapes?” she indicated a golden tray overflowing with black grapes.

 

N1.3Nyx
Nyx in her chariot in a lekythos from around 500-475 BCE

 

Nyx inspected Angela again, her eye lingering on her sweater and jeans.

“What extraordinary clothes! Are you an eastern person?”

“No ma’am, Kansas is pretty central.”

“Have you ever done any babysitting by any chance? My children are wearing me out.”

“Well,” Angela started, but then looked at Melinoë, who was shaking her head and making the cut-throat sign. “I’m…I’m not really very good with kids.”

“What a shame. I believe I will go out of my mind as it is. Melinoë, darling, would you be a dear and tell Erebos I won’t be down for lunch. I have a terrible headache.”

“Will do, auntie, bye for now,” Melinoë kissed her hand and the girls left her apartment. As they walked the halls, an ear-splitter roar rent the air. Angela nearly jumped out of her skin.

“What was that?” she was going to say, but a deafening racket ensued, accompanied by drums so low and loud that they seemed produced by a giant’s heart. She noticed that they were steadily moving towards the infernal din, and she worried that they would be engulfed by some hitherto unimagined monster, or an army of millions.

Note: This is chapter 4. Click here for chapter 1, here for 2 and here for 3.

 

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Attic black-figure neck-amphora from Vulci. Leagros Group, 510-500 BC