31st July 2016

Growing up in England, I was known as someone who couldn't cook. Stay out of the kitchen, everyone said. So, since arriving in France and having more time, I was determined to improve my non-existent culinary skills. Yesterday French friends Gerard and Monique arrived. What better challenge, Monique having almost cordon-bleu abilities. Beforehand, because of the intense heat here, I determined to prepare 3 courses fraiches. Useful because everything could be made the night before. But what?  See what you think. For the main plat I made a smoked salmon terrine: a melange of creamed cheese, herbs, cooked salmon and asparagus, wrapped with slices of smoked salmon, served with noodle salad and green lambs-lettuce. The dessert was mon favoris: cherries in juice topped with a melange of fromage blanc and mascarpone. But what about the entrée? Can you guess? Him indoors said but of course, has to be chilled vichyssoise soup, which I topped with a swirl of cream. And....Monique said: 'C'est tres bien'. Was ich hob gelebt.

Wednesday 27th July 2016

So many troubles in the world. Writers have a role to play in reaching others, but especially the young. JKR did a wonderful job in encouraging children to read but where was that vital message, the one subtly endorsing the need for understanding not only of other faiths but also those living in other parts of the world? My alter ego, Gillian Green, therefore is writing a series aimed at those aged 9 - 13. Each novel subtly includes someone of a particular faith and difficulty to be overcome, who experiences an exciting adventure in one of the 7 modern wonders of the world. Here's an excerpt from book 1, where Ruby has an exciting adventure in the ancient Temple of Petra in Jordan.

 Ruby (given the Jordanian name of Warda), is searching for her missing dog when she falls under the ruins of the ancient Temple of Petra in Jordan. She finds that every time she tries to climb back up to the surface she, and her dog Amber, age one year after every step. Will she and the dog reach the top before she dies of old age?

"....A cold wind blew down from the aperture high above her head, whipping a strand of her fair hair across her forehead and making her skin turn into goose pimples.  
The dog whimpered.
She looked all around her at the dark and dank walls, at the winding, narrow stairs which threw shadows against the walls, then shivered at the thought of the spider.  There was only one thing to do.
She and Amber would climb the steps and pray that she would reach the top in time.  They would each need to lick the water dripping from the walls to sustain their lives.
The clock was already ticking.  She would need every ounce of her strength if she was going to make it. 
She took a deep breath and, with Amber clutched firmly to her breast, began her ordeal.
Warda was dreaming again.
It felt so good to rest awhile on the cool step.  She had worked so hard and for so long, climbing, climbing, climbing.  It seemed like forever, but somehow she had remembered it was important to count each step as she progressed.  But as she became more and more tired, even the reason for remembering became cloudier and more vague. 
Every bone in her body ached. 
All she seemed to want to do was sleep.
And each step she climbed, she became older, heavier and more tired.
And the dog had become heavier and heavier, growling and snorting his disapproval each step she took.  She thought of dropping and abandoning him to his fate, but somehow still managed to hang on to him, despite his heaviness and bewhiskered face.  Every so often they would each turn to the damp walls and lick whatever drips of moisture they could.  Instinctively they each knew that for them to survive, they needed water more than anything else.  It was a far greater need than mere food.  Man could live for a considerable time without solid food, as long as he had water.
Halfway up the steps she had stopped to look down into a puddle and hardly recognised the wavery image that was reflected back at her. 
Who on earth was that old woman staring back so stupidly at her? 
When did my blond hair turn silver grey? she thought absently
And what on earth’s happened to my teeth? 
She brought her now wrinkled and mottled hand up to her mouth and felt the wide gaps between the few and rotting stumps still remaining in her pinched mouth. Why, my teeth seem to be falling out all on their own, she thought in wonder.  Long, long ago she had still been waiting for signs of her first wisdom tooth to appear, and now all of a sudden she had hardly any teeth left at all!
She glanced down at the steadily receding dank water at the bottom of the steps and suddenly, surprisingly, thought she saw a vision of her two brothers.  Yes, her two brothers appeared to both have their heads close together and were staring at her, dumbfounded. Please help me, she whispered silently to them.  Oh, please help me!  For a moment she thought they had heard her, as their faces registered first amazement, then shock.  But suddenly, in a twinkling of an eye, their heads disappeared from whence they came, their faces becoming again a distant memory. But of course they couldn’t hear me, she realised, disappointed.  They’re thousands of miles away.  She shook her head at her own logic, before forcing herself to confront the still daunting task which lay ahead of her. She vaguely remembered a nightmare she had had long long ago.  Everything in it now seemed to be coming true all around her.  Here was the same narrow cave that she had dreamed of, and there on the damp mildewy walls were the horrid faces that had so frightened her as a young girl.  Everywhere she looked was this massive hard rock with honeycomb tunnels leading off in crazy directions, and the very air she was struggling to breathe was depressing and had such a forbidding feeling to it.  There was so little sunlight which had managed to find its way down to where she stood that the whole area had an earthy, deadly smell.  And even though the caves lay under one of the hottest parts of the world, she felt so cold.  Every so often an icy wind would come rushing down the hole towards her, striking a chill deep within her bones.
With thoughts of Emil, she smiled a horrible toothy smile.  Oh, how handsome he was.  She still remembered the embarrassment of youth, when just the touch of his hand and the feel of his dewy eyes on her had made her tremble.  She realised that back then she must have been in the first flush of youth, ready to fall in love with the first boy she met.  And she had been so young, with her whole life ahead of her. 
But now?  She looked down at herself and realised she was almost bent double.  Her back ached and her knees were ready to give way at any moment.  What would Emil see in her now?  And indeed, was Emil still alive?  She couldn’t work out whether it was just she who had aged, or whether – if she were lucky enough ever to escape this hell hole – the whole world outside would have changed forever.
She tried again to calculate just how many steps she had climbed.  She knew it was important.  She thought it must be approaching ninety. 
Oh God! 
She just didn’t think she’d be able to make it.  Every step she took she got older.  Of course, at first she had run and skipped up the steps, determined to reach the top and resume her old life again.  What was it Verdigris had told her just before he left? 
Oh yes. Even though I would get one year older with each step, if I could only reach the top, I would instantly become young again. 
But now Warda doubted if she would make it.  She just didn’t have enough breath left in her body to move any further.
It was then that she heard the shout.  She thought she was dreaming, so far away did the noise sound.  She realised that her hearing was becoming dimmer and dimmer and she now found it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.
But yes, there it was again.
There was no doubt.  Someone was shouting her name.  She tried to answer, but it felt so good to lie down on that cool step for just a moment longer.  Amber too seemed to be happy to rest awhile, her tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth.  At first she used to give Warda cooling licks all over her face, but lately even that had stopped as she preferred to sleep most of the time.  Her coat, which used to be so glossy and silky, had now become rough to the touch, and even her fur had turned dry, dull and grey, just like Warda’s.
With one last effort, Warda managed to whisper:  ‘‘Emil.  Emil!  It’s me, Warda.’  She stopped for a minute, the act of talking at all taking all her strength.  ‘Emil, can’t talk.  Just help me, please.  I’m nearly there, but every step makes me grow older.  Already I’ve climbed nearly ninety steps….can’t go any further….please h.e.l.p……..’ 
That seemed to take the last of her strength as she subsided into thankful unconsciousness again.
An age later her nose twitched as something seemed to be brushing her face.  Absently, unconsciously, she moved her arm up to tiredly brush it away, but there it was again.  It felt like someone was brushing her face with a piece of rope. 
As she opened her eyes, she felt for the dog’s pulse.  It was faint, but there was still something there.  She opened her tired eyes, every move of her muscles taking a supreme effort, and thought she saw a rope dangling there right in front of her face.  And there was that voice again. She was sure of it. It seemed a lifetime away, but surely that was Emil?  And then there it was again. This time she was sure. She recognised Emil’s voice shouting down at her.
‘Have you got it, Warda?  Warda!  Have you got it?’
With her wizened and wrinkled hand, she took hold of the stringy rope and felt it taughten.  Could there be some hope for her and Amber after all?  She had realistically given up all hope long ago. But now with a last ounce of effort, she managed to stand on her aching limbs and catch hold of the rope.  She took Amber into her arms again and tugged again on the rope.
A voice shouted down again at her.  ‘That’s it, Warda.  Hold tight.  I’m going to try and pull you up.  All you’ve got to do is to hang on.’
Easier said than done, she thought as she looked down at the swollen joints on her fingers and felt the weak, hooded lids on her eyes stiffen and weep at the corners. And then, miraculously, she found herself being hauled up the remaining steps, one by one. In truth, her feet were by now dangling downwards as she was dragged and pulled painfully step by step, her arms straining horribly high above her head. But gradually, indubitably, the light above her head was definitely becoming brighter with each pull of the rope as bit by bit, step by step, she and Amber were being hauled up to the surface. But already her sight had faded, and the ringing in her ears became louder by the second, until she remembered no more....."
Note from the author:  maybe you have youngsters in your family who would enjoy this series? Each Wednesday I'll include a link on the first three in this series plus an extract.  Don't miss next Wednesday's blog when Ruby's friend Clementine goes back in time to 17C Italy in search of a missing Stradivarius.

24th July 2016

49 years together. Amazing. 11 years since we moved to France. Challenging. Our early hilarious mishaps (see Pensioners in Paradis paperback (www.amazon.co.uk/Pensioners-Paradis-Olga-Swan/dp/1847994156?ie=UTF8&ref_=asap_bc), contrast with our wonderful French experiences, as they unfolded, on this blog. However, the first turning point came 8 years ago when my brother was dying. Despite frantic efforts to reach him in B'ham in time - and nobody but nobody would have our dog urgently (and the kennel woman was in Morocco!) - I was too late to speak to my brother before he died. Then, soon after, my sole remaining sibling (both parents having passed away 50 years ago) also passed away. I'm now older, but wiser. Never say you'll never change your mind. Life, age and politics can change everything. The Brexit button, despite a legal challenge in Oct, is likely to be pressed Jan 17. So, that's my target too. We, and the UK, may well be leaving France behind over the next few months. But, still keeping an open mind. Who knew 49 years ago that our lives would evolve like this. You never know what's around the corner.

17 July 2016

France is in mourning. Over 80 innocent lives lost, over 200 injured. Tourists of all nationalities and locals simply out on Thursday night to enjoy the national day firework celebrations, something that was meant to remind the world of secular France's abiding Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité for all. But now the Promenade des Anglais in Nice is a shrine to their dear memory. Philosopher John Stuart Mill once propounded the need for everyone to pursue their own happiness goals in life but (importantly) only if this does NOT cause suffering to others. There lies the rub.
To cheer everyone up, I turn to the comedy hour that has been UK politics this last week. Him indoors suggested new PM May, along with Chancellor Hammond, only needed Clarkson to bring her into top gear. He also wondered whether the PM’s staff realised what she meant when, against Boris Johnson's name, she wrote 'F. OFF.'......

Wednesday 13th July 2016

Welcome to my occasional series featuring authors who write about international settings. Today it's the turn of Tim Taylor, whose first book illustrated below covered historical Greece.  Just the place for warm summer nights with a glass of cool retsina.  Here's Tim to tell us all about it.
Hello Olga, many thanks for inviting me onto your blog today.

I am at a disadvantage in comparison to some of your other visitors, in that it is a good few years since I last visited Greece. It is nevertheless a country I love, and I retain many vivid and treasured memories of it. Though its landscape and coast are hauntingly beautiful, perhaps the greatest thing about Greece is the fourth dimension provided by layer upon layer of history. That history, together with the legends and mythology which surround it and the cultural and intellectual achievements it spawned, has fascinated me since childhood. I studied ancient Greece at university, so have a good general knowledge of the period, but such is the richness of the history that by looking a little closer one can always find something new in it.
Fascinating. So, what led to your story?
I was reading a book about Sparta, in which I happened upon a section about the Messenians: a people who inhabited the south-western part of the Peloponnese peninsula. In the eighth century BC Messenia was invaded by the neighbouring Spartans and its inhabitants turned into ‘helot’ slaves, a condition in which they remained for centuries to come, except during their occasional revolts. I was already aware of the Messenians, their helot status and brutal subjection inflicted on them by Sparta. However, reading about them afresh, I was particularly struck by the fact that they never lost their sense of nationhood or their desire to reclaim their land, even after many had fled Messenia to settle elsewhere. Everybody knows about the Spartans and their martial prowess; few people know much about those unfortunate neighbours whose enslavement made Sparta’s full-time dedication to the arts of war both possible and necessary. It struck me that the Messenians’ story was crying out to be told. And my next thought, of course, was ‘well, I suppose I had better tell it, then!’
This touches right at the heart of classical story-telling. How did you plan the plot?
I decided to do so through the fictional story of Diocles, a young helot, forced to flee after an encounter with the Krypteia (a Spartan paramilitary force that spies on and murders helots). He encounters Aristomenes, an old rebel who still harbours dreams of revolt, and for want of a better option travels with him towards Delphi to seek advice from the oracle.  At Delphi, Diocles meets (historical) Theban general Epaminondas, who also has no love for Sparta; and travels with him to Thebes to learn the arts of politics and war.  He becomes involved in wider events which will eventually create the conditions for Diocles and Aristomenes to return to Messenia and begin their revolt in earnest.
The story thus takes the reader on a long journey through southern and central Greece. For some parts of that journey I had memories of my own to draw on.  For example, Delphi, in its stunning setting half way up a mountain with views all the way down to the sea, had made a powerful impression on me.  Even here, though, there was a complication: Delphi as it is now is not the same as it was in the fourth century BC. The ancient buildings, such as the temple of Apollo where the oracle gave her prophecies, are just ruins now (those columns you can see in the photo are all that still stands of it).  I needed to reconstruct them in imagination (and of course, to demolish the modern ones!).  There were other places that feature in the story which I had never visited at all, such as Mount Ithome, the ancient sanctuary of the Messenians (and the home of their patron God, Zeus Ithomatas), where the story begins and ends. Unfortunately, my budget didn’t run to a trip to Greece to spy out the locations I was unfamiliar with, much as I would have liked one! So what was I to do?  I found an invaluable resource in Google Earth, which enabled me to place myself in the landscape and follow the paths my characters travelled, seeing the shape of the terrain more or less as they would have seen it. Feedback from readers who have been to these places suggests that it is surprisingly accurate.

This must have taken painstaking research Tim?
No amount of internet trickery can fill out that ‘fourth dimension’, though. I felt it was important both to be true to the historical events I was depicting and to give a vivid and lifelike picture of a time and place; not just the setting, but how people lived and what they believed: for that, there is no substitute for research. It was far from being a chore. Reading about these things rekindled my love affair with Greek civilisation. But in doing so, it has created a desire that no amount of research or novel-writing can completely fulfil. As writing this piece has reminded me, I need to go back! 
I believe your story will whet the appetite of all armchair classicists who dream of ancient Greece, so thank you Tim for your interesting insights. How do we buy your work and find out more?
Zeus of Ithome page:  http://www.tetaylor.co.uk/#!zeus-of-ithome/cb7u
Facebook author page:  https://www.facebook.com/timtaylornovels
Website:  http://www.tetaylor.co.uk/
Twitter:  https://twitter.com/timetaylor1
Blog: https://timwordsblog.wordpress.com/
Can you tell us a bit about your own background?
I was born in 1960 in Stoke-on-Trent. I studied Classics at Pembroke College, Oxford (and later Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London). After a couple of years playing in a rock band, I joined the Civil Service, eventually leaving in 2011 to spend more time writing.  I now live in Yorkshire with my wife Rosa and divide my time between creative writing, academic research and part-time teaching and other work for Leeds and Huddersfield Universities. My first novel, Zeus of Ithome, was published by Crooked Cat in November 2013; my second, Revolution Day in June 2015.  I also write poetry and the occasional short story, play guitar, and like to walk up hills.
Thank you Tim for visiting my blog today. Very enjoyable.

10th July 2016

Well, what's it to be: go back home or take out French citizenship? Only two options I'm afraid....
I always like to look back at history when pondering the future. Would we have called a referendum in Churchill's day?  For those who haven't yet read my war-time novel VICHYSSOISE (on sale right now, only 99p/99c), there's a message very relevant to today. It's about choosing the right leader. Everything hangs on it. To this day France still regrets electing Petain in 1940 - totally the wrong man, who hadn't a clue about dealing with Hitler. So, a message to today's Tories at this crucial time: think long and hard whom to elect as next PM. We know it'll be a woman, but the wrong choice could bring repercussions greater than we know. Forget personality or likeability: it's all to do with inner strength, political experience, education and an even balance of mind in a crisis. Ask any Frenchman. In this crazy world we don't need another Petain!
....but if I take out French citizenship and the French forget my message and elect Marine Le Pen in the 2017 elections?  Damned if I do, damned if I don't....

3rd July 2016

A week of Shakespearean tragedy. Cameron stabbed Britain in the back by calling a referendum for internal party reasons, Boris stabbed Cameron in the back by voting Leave, and a man called Gove stabbed Boris to further his own PM ambitions.  The result? Pretty much 50:50 in the end. Hardly a clarion call by the people. All I've met who voted Leave are now regretting their decision! Such chaos. The very reason people don't like the EU is because they're unelected by the public. An oxymoron democracy! Yet, come October, Britain will have a new PM and guess what? That person will be unelected by the public! If only everyone had read Sarkozy's views on how to stop non-EU immigration:  restrict Schengen free movement to EU nationals only. Come back Nicolas, we need you! Widening the scope globally, the only interesting thing is the emergence of so many women leaders. Joining Merkel we could soon have Theresa May (UK), Hillary Clinton (US), and frighteningly Marine Le Pen (France).  The witches of Cawdor stirring a political broth, or at last women coming to the rescue of a stupid world? I'm out of here. Brexit? No simply the views of an ex-Brit!