Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Ancient Greek Horses

Most of us are familiar with ancient Greek sculptures of the human body, but here's another example of how brilliantly they observed the equine form. This is a relief funerary sculpture, photographed in the Archaeological Museum of Athens, of a caparisoned horse and his handler.

Now if he were my horse I should not be keen on the handler raising his whip-hand in this way, but it is of course possible that we are looking at a chariot horse being trained for battle. He is not saddled and the caparison bears some sort of emblem at the front.

Notice the detail extends to individual muscles and small blood vessels. There is even a small crack in the right fore hoof!

Unless the handler is very diminutive we are looking at a stallion of impressive size for the period too.

Next is a life size bronze of a horse and juvenile jockey. The statue was recovered in pieces from a shipwreck off Cape Artemision in Euboea.

The jockey would have held the reins in his left hand and a whip in the right. These were probably of less durable material and have not survived immersion.

Notice the boy has no stirrups. There is some evidence to suggest that these were not invented until the early Middle Ages. Of course he has no saddle either and they were used by cavalrymen in antiquity. The lack of a saddle would have been a device to save weight,as would the youth of the jockey.

The piece dates from about 140 BC. Oh yes it does.

Recovered here are the metal parts of a real brute of a bit. Notice the shaped bars to prevent it pulling through the mouth and the particularly fierce wheels and serrations of the mouthpiece itself.

If the horse in the first picture had one of these in its mouth I can imagine why he's throwing up his head. Again, I suspect this can only have been battle harness, when instant obedience would be required from the mount and you might actually want him to rear. It's hard to imagine why you would need something like this in normal circumstances.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Iron Hail

I'm very pleased to report that my short story Iron Hail is included in the Zombies Need Brains anthology All Hail Our Robot Conquerors. This is available now for pre-order on Amazon and due for release on Friday 1st September.


The robots of the 50s and 60s science fiction movies and novels captured our hearts and our imaginations. Their clunky, bulbous bodies with their clear domed heads, whirling antennae, and randomly flashing lights staggered ponderously across the screen and page and into our souls—whether as a constant companion or as the invading army threatening to exterminate our world. We can never return to that innocent time, where the robots could be identified by their burning red eyes or our trusty robot sidekick would warn us instantly of danger— Or can we?

With a touch of nostalgia and a little tongue-in-cheek humor, here are fifteen stories from today’s leading science fiction and fantasy authors that take us back to the time of evil robot overlords, invading armies, and not-quite-trustworthy mechanical companions. Join Julie E. Czerneda, Brandon Daubs, Tanya Huff, Brian Trent, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Jason Palmatier, Jez Patterson, Gini Koch, Lauren Fox, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Philip Brian Hall, Rosemary Edghill, R. Overwater, Helen French, and Seanan McGuire as we step into the future with a nod to the past. Hold on to those stun guns. You may need them!

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Heavy Weather

I'm delighted to announce that my short story 'Heavy Weather' has been accepted for the forthcoming Flame Tree Publishing anthology 'Pirates and Ghosts'.

Some of my readers will know of my enthusiasm for sailing ships, and of course I'm not long back from a cruise aboard the lovely barquentine Star Flyer.

Having been, since my youth a voracious reader of nautical tales, it seems I might be able to write them too. You may remember the first podcast of my work a year or so ago when Gallery of Curiosities put out 'Last of the Spice Schooners'.

Flame Tree do produce the most beautiful hardbacks and their lovely volumes intersperse classic authors with newer names. This volume includes work by Joseph Conrad, James Fenimore Cooper, Stephen Crane, F. Marion Crawford, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Hope Hodgson, Homer, W.W. Jacobs, Rudyard Kipling, Vernon Lee, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Middleton, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and  H.G. Wells.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

This year's butterflies

I wouldn't normally find the appearance of a Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) all that remarkable. On Sliabh Mannan these butterflies are usually relatively common but have been scarce this year. Peacock, likewise usually relatively common, have been almost completely absent.

I suspect the lengthy period of significant summer rain has been too much for some of the larger species. Quite often the butterflies I've seen have been short of bits of wing.

This specimen however was particularly bright and may well have been recently-emerged. I wonder if there might yet be a late-season surge?

By contrast Orange Tip in the late Spring, Ringlet in early summer and Green Veined White much of the time have been abundant, and a Painted Lady, not seen for years, did appear in the garden. Their periods of emergence were marked by more clement weather.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Getting at the truth

Julian the Apostate
We all think we know the meaning of the word truth. We all think that, if asked, we can give examples of it. We might even call these examples things we know (for sure).

Yet philosophers have written volumes attempting to define truth. If it’s so simple that everybody knows what it means, what did they find to write about?

My own ideas of truth were probably most profoundly influenced by Bernard Williams. He suggested the first issue for us to resolve must be whether truth is external or internal to ourselves. Is it something out there, waiting for us to recognize it, or is it something in our own heads?

If it’s the latter, then is there anything to stop what’s in my head (my truth) from being different from what’s in yours (your truth)? Might there be as many truths as people? Wouldn’t that be effectively the same as truth not existing at all?

If truth is external, then how did ‘what’s out there’ get into my head? How reliable is the perceptual mechanism that put it there?

The problem here is that we don’t have direct access to the outside world. We perceive by way of senses that are specific to ourselves and yield data relative to ourselves. That’s a good thing. It’s best that I should perceive, say, threats to myself in the most direct way possible. If a charging rhino’s fifty feet away from me, I’d quite like to know about it, and only it, rather than be provided with a total world picture.

The drawback to this system is, we can’t see anything absolutely. Our brains have become expert at deducing what absolutes must be there in order for them to receive the relative impressions they do, and most of the time they’re right, but not always. We may greet a friend in the street, say, only to find when he turns around that it’s not actually him. In other words, we all make mistakes.

Our brains use not only sensory inputs, sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, but also our own experiences and our cultural upbringing in order to make sense of the world and produce the perceptions they register. No two people therefore will have identical perceptions of anything, but similar people from similar backgrounds will have perceptions that overlap a lot, sufficiently for us to call that overlap truth.

It is however important to remember the relative nature of that overlap. Our truth describes the world as seen by people like us. There are alternative truths out there. It is not the case that everyone who disagrees with us is a fool, a rogue, or lying.

We are all rational people, aren’t we? We aren’t going to change our own notion of the truth because someone shouts at us, calls us rude names, or blocks us on Facebook. We’re stubborn, so that sort of thing only confirms our belief we’re right. The only thing that will persuade us we’re wrong is evidence. Like when the person who’s not the friend we think he is actually turns round.

So why oh why do some people apparently think other people will change their minds in response to abuse, threats, no-platforming or anything else except evidence and reason?

Phantaxis - Free Today until Sunday

A reminder that the digital version of Phantaxis' August edition is available for free download from today until Sunday.

My story is called The Ship of Theseus. I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Venice by Night Again!

Showing the value of feedback, I'm republishing my four views from Ponte degli Scalzi with a little post-processing courtesy of the freely-downloadable GIMP graphics program. These versions are much brighter and more contrast-enhanced than the orginals. On the other hand they're less dark and mysterious. I'd beinterested to know what you think.



Friday, 11 August 2017

Venice by night

Here are four views of The Grand Canal from the Ponte degli Scalzi:

For photography enthusiasts, the first photo looking towards the church of San Simeone Piccolo was 1/3 sec at f 4.5 on ISO 200. Compare it with the last one. This one I think looks much warmer and softer.

The restaurant on the left in the second picture is where we had our last dinner in Venice, and we couldn't have been much closer to the canal.

Above is the opposite side of the canal from our restaurant.

This one was 1/5 sec at f 11 on ISO 3200 just to see if it would be usable. The difference in result from the first picture is quite interesting, I think. The water of the canal looks almost frozen.

Well that more or less concludes my series of holiday reports. I hope you found at least some of them interesting. Now it's back to daily showers instead of a Mediterranean heat wave, but at least the dogue was glad to see us home!

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Venice by vaporetto

We discovered by accident that day tickets (and perhaps longer seasons) on the ‘little steamships’ or vaporettos (such as the one above lower left) are good value. Though this is the ‘bus service’ of Venice, it’s considerably more fun than a regular bus, most of the time.

Forty euros buys you uno giorno per due (one day ticket x 2 people). This entitles you to unlimited journeys during the day. You can hop on for a couple of stops or sail around the lagoon all day. It not only saves your feet but gives you unusual views of the city (such as The Grand Canal from the middle, below left).

Tip number one: get hold of a route map. The variously numbered vaporettos follow different routes and only small sections of a single route are displayed aboard the vessels. When planning your journey and deciding where you need to change lines it’s a nuisance to rely on the full maps that are only posted (if you’re lucky) at the stops.

Tip number two: make sure you’re at the right stop. Sometimes there are several stops next to each other, each serving different routes, and at a major interchange such as Lido di Venezia the array of stops can be about a hundred yards long. Be particularly careful not to get on the right number vaporetto going in the wrong direction.

Tip number three: you have to present the face of your ticket to an electronic card reader each time you access the boarding pontoon, even if there isn’t a physical barrier to be opened. Having a properly recorded ticket is part of the system and you’re not supposed to be on the landing stage without one, let alone the boat.

Tip number four: it’s great to visit the outlying island stops (such as Burano, right)  but try not to schedule your departure for the same time as everyone else, for example late afternoon when everyone’s thinking of heading back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. Failure to observe this rule may lead to overcrowding on the landing stage and failure to catch the vaporetto you want.

But hey, these are pretty simple rules and there are lots of fascinating places nearby. Venice isn’t just St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs you know. In fact if you go fifty to a hundred yards off the main tourist routes you may well wonder what all the fuss over excessive numbers is about.

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Ship of Theseus is in Phantaxis

I'm pleased to announce that my short story The Ship of Theseus has been published in the August 2017 edition of Phantaxis Magazine.

I'm very fond of this story, in which an undercover cop in a dystopian future San Francisco discovers a lot more than he expected about how his world is being run.

Phantaxis is available in paperback or as an e-book.

PRINT: here


Do note that the e-book version will be available for FREE download during a special promotion on Amazon from  Friday August 18th 2017 to Sunday 20th inclusive.

I hope all of you will take advantage of this great offer. And if you like my story, please be sure to let everyone know!

P.S. Change of Promotion Date

The publisher has changed the ebook promotion dates to Friday August 18th, Saturday August 19th, and Sunday August 20th. The promotion will no longer run August 11th through 13th. as previously notified. Phantaxis wish to apologize for this change which was out of their hands.

Lošinj, Croatia

If you’re interested in The Adriatic, it won’t have escaped your attention that it hasn’t escaped anybody else’s attention either. Some of the more popular places are almost overwhelmed by the volume of tourism and some are already taking steps to moderate the pressure on their facilities. That fact is, it’s quite hard to enjoy being a tourist when surrounded by hundreds or thousands of other people all trying to do the same.

Step forward the island of Lošinj, which adds to its numerous attractions the absence of an airport. Though you can fly in by light aircraft or seaplane, the bulk of tourists are dependent upon ships. Last year the island was praised by The Independent newspaper as an overlooked jewel.

I can confirm that the little port of Mali Lošinj is far from overpopulated. Tourists here do seem to have room to breathe. When we visited it was also significantly cooler than our earlier stops, (a blessing). Perhaps this is why it has been called the island of vitality.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Hvar Island, Croatia

I’m inclined to wonder why Admiral Sir Thomas Fremantle isn’t more famous. Hvar Island is another example of the outstanding achievements of his frigate squadron in The Adriatic during the closing years of the Naopleonic Wars. Again, considering that the fortress overlooking its harbour is as formidable as that of Kotor, the success of these relatively small ships in subduing the local French garrisons is quite remarkable.

Like Korčula, Hvar was controlled by pirates and necessarily subdued by the Venetians in the early years of their empire. It also followed a similar path through to the independence of Croatia in 1991.
Last time we visited, we climbed up to the fortress, from which the view is grand. This year it was too hot for such exertions and we contented ourselves with a pleasant walk through the back streets to the monastery and back along the seafront, where boating and water-sports are very popular.

The Old Town is beautifully preserved, with a spacious central plaza in front of the cathedral. Sadly we couldn’t walk up and down it in the relative cool of the evening, because by then we’d already sailed for our penultimate port of call.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Korčula, Croatia

Above may well be the best of my holiday photographs.

Legend has it that the island of Korčula was settled by Trojan refugees led by Antenor. Whether you want your city to have been founded by King Priam’s adviser might, I suppose, depend on whether you regard Antenor as a hero, an appeaser or an outright traitor, in which latter case you agree with Dante.

It is known that the island was later settled by Illyrians and Greeks, was conquered by the Romans and later became a haven for pirates who vexed the Venetians sufficiently for them to take it over themselves. Its sailors distinguished themselves against the Turks at the decisive Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Captured from the French by the British towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Korčula was subsequently held by Austria-Hungary until it was incorporated into Yugoslavia after the First World War. In 1991 it formed part of newly-independent Croatia.

Today the esplanade built by the British is a notable feature of a beautiful city whose fortifications offer just the right sort of romantic atmosphere to inspire fantasy writers, provided they can stand the heat!

Friday, 4 August 2017

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Historically the Republic of Ragusa, Dubrovnik’s prosperity was built upon maritime trade and foreign settlements, making it a thalassocracy. This brought it into rivalry with Venice, which actually ruled Ragusa in the 13th and 14th centuries.

After the great earthquake of 1667 it never really regained its former prominence and for several centuries maintained its independence only as a vassal of The Ottoman Empire. After the Napoleonic Wars Ragusa passed under the control of Austria-Hungary and was incorporated into Yugoslavia after the First World War.

During the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 the city of Dubrovnik was besieged and much damage done by shelling, requiring much reconstruction after 1995. You can still see the difference in colour between old and new roofs when looking at pictures of the Old City from above.

A walk around the city walls today is neither cheap nor in summer heat all that easy, but it leads one to appreciate the work that has been done to restore ‘The Pearl of the Adriatic’ to its former glory.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Kotor, Montenegro (Cattaro in Italian)

Kotor, Montenegro

A while ago, accusations flew around that Russia had tried to engineer a coup in Montenegro to prevent it joining NATO. If so, the object of the exercise was probably the port of Kotor, which would have given Russia an Adriatic foothold.

In their day, the Venetians, who held the place almost 400 years, the French and the Austrians all thought the same. The natural harbour was relatively easy to defend and its sheltered waters could hold an entire fleet without difficulty.

Castle of St John, Cattaro
During the Napoleonic Wars Cattaro was the scene of a little known but brilliant campaign. In 1813 the French garrison under Gauthier was besieged by a Montenegrin force but able to hold out because it could be supplied by sea.

Captain John Harper’s 18-gun Royal Navy brig Saracen arrived in November to assist the besiegers. Unable to sail up the long dog-leg, mountain-girt fjord to the fortress, Harper rigged tow ropes and had local people physically drag his ship into the huge inner harbour, where she made re-supply impossible.

However the French could still withstand a siege as long as they held the Castle of St John, whose guns commanded the port from its site half way up the mountainside.

Harper dismounted an 18 pounder cannon from his ship and set his crew to haul it to the top of the mountain, later assisted by The frigate Bacchante’s arrival with a substantially larger crew. The operation took a month, but finally succeeded. With his fortress under bombardment from above, the French general was obliged to surrender.

I contemplated the climb up to the castle but decided it was too much in the heat. The view Gauthier enjoyed is said to be spectacular and an assault against the Venetian defences would have been costly.

There is much to enjoy in the little town itself, which abounds with merchant palaces, interesting churches and fortifications.  

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

A little more night photography

Leaving the port of Kotor, Montenegro, I was able to take advantage of the calm waters of the so-called 'fjord' to try out some more night photography.

The semicircle of light is the Venetian fortifications leading to the Castle of St John

Ropes and boats aboard Star Flyer frame the scene.

The lights of the waterfront.

And "A View From The Bridge."

Star Clippers - Tall Ship Cruising

You can keep your giant cruise ships. Why would anybody want to go to sea in a floating apartment block surrounded by thousands of people you don’t know?

With Star Flyer you can return (almost) to the leisurely days of sail. Unfortunately of course a cruise ship has to run more or less to a schedule and this tends to mean more motoring than you would prefer on days when the wind is contrary, though the fore and aft rig of all but a barquentine’s foremast mean she can sail within thirty degrees of the wind, which is half the angle that can be maintained by a square rigger. Perversely, the wind tended to favour us at night rather than in the day.

The 2,300 ton ship carries only 170 passengers. No fixed places for meals means very quickly you seem to know half the people aboard, even several of those whose first language is not English. I enjoyed one delightful dinner conducted in French, finding words that had lain disused for decades were still there, tucked away in recesses of the brain. Fortunately the Germans all seem to speak English.

The staff are all friendly and attentive, the cabins are good, the food and drink excellent. Especial thanks to the boatman driving the tender to and from shore who was happy to let her fall off course a point or two so you could frame a good photograph of the ship. You can climb the mast, watch dolphins from the bowsprit netting, swim in two on-board pools, relax in the air-conditioned piano lounge or watch the sun go down while you drink cocktails in the Tropical Bar.

Since the ship is small enough to visit lesser-frequented islands, I do have to wonder whether Mykonos is worth inclusion in the itinerary. I think I might have appreciated advance warning that if you aren’t there for the bathing there is absolutely nothing in Katakolon other than the terminus station for buses and trains going to Olympia. Apart from these minor details, the ship itself provides the holiday. It’s just a glorious way to travel.

(NB – I couldn’t easily photograph Star Flyer under sail. The pictured ship under sail is her sister ship Star Clipper.)

Palaiokastritsa, Corfu

You get to pick your own legend here.

Kolovri Island in Palaiokastritsa Bay (above) is:

  1. The petrified ship of Odysseus, turned to stone by Poseidon in revenge for the blinding of his son Polyphemus the Cyclops, from which wreck the captain alone was able to swim ashore to be rescued by Nausicaa.
  2. The petrified remains of the Pheaecian ship belonging to Nausicaa’s father, which transported Odysseus home to Ithaca after all his wandering but which, on its own return, was turned to stone by Poseidon (see above).
  3. The petrified remains of an Algerian pirate ship which, while pursuing a local vessel, was turned to stone by miraculous intervention following the prayers of the monks of Palaiokastritsa’s Monastery.
  4. None of the above because several other islets claim to be the petrified ship of Odysseus and they can’t all be right.
If you look closely you can clearly see the approximate shape of an Ancient Greek trireme. The high, curving forecastle and sterncastle with the short central mast bearing a single square sail would be typical. It’s just suffered erosion in the last 2,200 years, that’s all.

The Monastery of the Virgin Mary is itself well worth a visit here. Some monks still live there; we actually met one. In addition to a beautiful small church they have an interesting little museum of wine-making including a donkey-powered mill (but without a donkey).

The view from the high hill overlooking the bay is spectacular.

Apart from this Palaiokastritsa is famous as a family-friendly beach with good restaurants.