HASTE – Lady of the Lake

Amidst reports of a young lady being constantly immersed in water and thrusting a pointed sword into the air in a vain attempt to save herself, I head to the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury in 421 A.D.

I am walking by a small lake when I see a young woman standing up in the water and watching me.

“Hello,” I said, “is your name Vivian, the Lady of the Lake?”

“It is,” she said, accompanied by some celestial music that began to entrance me, “are you Merlin?”

“No,” I said trying hard to resist her charms.

“Are you Arthur, because if you are then I have something for you, something hard and pointed and extremely strong.”

“I am not Arthur, either,” I said almost completely overcome by her beauty.

“Oh, then just who are you?” she asked. The music stopped. The spell was broken.

“I am Brian Snell, from the Health and Safety Time Executive.”

“Well, Sir Brian of the Haste, how can I help you?”

“I have a report of a young lady standing in water all the time. I presume that is you, so who is your employer? I should speak to them about your working conditions as you shouldn’t be standing in water wearing a revealing dress all the time. You will catch your death of cold.”

“I am self-employed and this is my home, I am used to the conditions I find myself in. You see this dress – it’s a special kind of samite a luxurious and heavy silk fabric of a twill-type weave, including gold and silver thread. It’s also waterproof and so I don’t really feel the cold.”

“Well that’s as maybe, but you are still in contravention of the law regarding the wearing of appropriate clothing when working in water. You should be wearing a diving suit or some other rubber suit that prevents you catching cold. I shall have to issue you with an order to comply with the regulations within seven working days or you will have to pay a fine.”

“I am not wearing a diving suit, although I suppose I could wear it under my dress, and just have my head sticking out of the water, because it would not look sexy and alluring to either Merlin or Arthur when they come by, if I was wearing a dark rubber suit.”

“Are they due to come by in the near future?”

“Merlin is already overdue and I was hoping Arthur would have dropped by as he will need his sword Excalibur to show his leadership qualities.”

“I just passed a young man who was trying to pull a sword out of a stone.”

“Where was this?”

“A few minutes ago, just the other side of that hill where I parked my vehicle.”

“Oh, that means he will be here soon, when he finds out that sword is just a fake – it’s a sword handle glued into place.”

“Whereas your sword is real?”

“It is – look I will show you – here it is.”

“Whoa, you could have someone’s eye out – do you have a license for that? It’s a lethal weapon and should be kept in a locked cabinet. Where do you keep it?”

“Just here under the water – in a hole in the lake bed.”

“What would happen if someone stole it?”

“They wouldn’t be able to – it has magical powers and can only be used by the once and future king, if you see what I mean.”

“What happens if someone, who isn’t the once and future king, tried to use it?”

“It would become incredibly heavy and they would not be able to lift it from its resting place.”

“That’s by the by. I will still issue you with another order R445-9822 to obtain a special license for the sword within 7 working days, otherwise the weapon will be confiscated by my colleague who will be conducting a further inspection in the next two weeks. I will attach both the orders to the end of the sword.”

“Thank you, Sir Brian of the Haste, but I sense the sword will not be here in seven working days, as I believe Arthur, the once and future king, is on his way.”

The music of the spheres started again and a figure, wringing his right hand as though he’d injured his wrist, came into sight. I sensed it was time to vacate the scene, although I was still worried Vivian would catch a chill if she continued to wear just a dress in the cold waters of the lake.

From the book Haste

Macedonia

Travelling into Skopje, from Alexander the Great airport, I was expecting to see refugees walking along the road heading for Serbia. I was told that people were no longer allowed to walk on the roads and along the train tracks as there had been too many accidents in the preceding months. Now, the refugees were bused from the Greek border to the Serbian border and weren’t allowed to spend more than three days in Macedonia otherwise they would be returned to their point of entry and thrown out of the country.

 

Macedonia was one of the republics that comprised the former Yugoslavia. However, since the breakup of that country, Macedonia has struggled to find an identity. This is largely because Macedonia was forced to join the United Nations under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) because of Greek objections to the use of the name Macedonia. The ancient kingdom of Macedon, ruled over by Philip II and then Alexander the Great, covered the area around Ohrid in modern day FYROM, some of south-west Bulgaria, and most of northern Greece including Thessaloniki. Greeks living in this area of Greece refer to themselves as Macedonian and aren’t related ethnically to the modern day Slav people living in FYROM.  

 

This dispute is still going on and needs international arbitration. Greece believes FYROM has tried to appropriate Alexander the Great from them, even though Alexander was undisputedly born in Pella in modern day Greece. Greece has also blocked FYROM’s EU membership application, though it is thought Bulgaria would block such an application if Greece didn’t. When I heard this, it seemed as though FYROM could soon become alienated in their own backyard and possibly look to Turkey for friendly relations. I started to feel sorry for the country I was visiting, which I shall now refer to as Macedonia. I continued to feel sorry for Macedonia for the rest of my visit.

 

Apparently the brand new Skopje bypass was closed because a French film company was filming an action sequence on this road. The bypass was closed for three weeks in total. The local drivers hadn’t had a chance to use the road yet. As a result we took a convoluted route into the city and I was dropped off at my hotel. It didn’t look too promising from my window. There was a lot of traffic and many blocks of flats. Looking at the map, I was relieved to see the city centre and the old town were in a different direction, a direction I immediately headed in.  

 

After two hundred yards I found the Church of Saint Clement of Ohrid, the largest house of worship of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Construction of this Orthodox Cathedral began in 1972 and the consecration took place on 12th August 1990, the 1150th anniversary of the birth of St. Clement of Ohrid. This church seems to be composed of only domes and arches and from a distance appears like a giant, bald spider.

 

Five hundred yards further on things started to get interesting. I saw a large equestrian statue on top of an enormous plinth; sure enough it was Alexander the Great riding Bucephalus and striking a dramatic pose. When this statue was raised the Greeks were upset because they believed the Macedonians were making an unfair claim on Macedonia being the birthplace of Alexander. A strongly worded note from Athens to Skopje outlined the reasons for the Greek displeasure. Underneath rider and horse, a co-ordinated display of leaping water caught my attention. The word fountain doesn’t come close to describing the choreography of the jets as they played in tune with the classical music emanating from loudspeakers attached to nearby lamp standards. The music was Johann Strauss waltzes and extracts from Wagnerian operas such as “Ride of the Valkyries”.

 

On a street running from the square, there was an Arc de Triomphe, which was completed in 2014. Called the ‘Porta Macedonia’, the 21-metre high arch symbolises the triumph of a nation that had won its independence 21 years previously. This arch cost 4.4 million Euros and both this arch and the Alexander the Great monument were part of a 200 million Euro construction project to build monuments and neoclassical buildings in the Macedonian capital; the cost of the project has almost tripled, but at least it is now almost complete and the visitor and their camera can reap the benefits, although the locals regard the new buildings as a colossal waste of money.

 

The oldest structure in this area is the Kameni Most, or Stone Bridge, spanning the river and taking visitors to Carsija, the old town of Skopje. Just as I was about to walk across, I noticed a statue of someone about to jump into the river and a pair of legs sticking out of the river. Further along the bank was a sailing ship made from concrete blocks and serving as a restaurant. I walked past the ship and crossed another, modern bridge imitating the Charles Bridge in Prague, although the statues of the famous Macedonians were a lot smaller and closer together than their Prague counterparts. This bridge landed me at the main entrance of the brand new Museum of Archaeology, but I resisted the temptation to visit the 6000 artifacts from prehistory to the Middle Ages, found on three floors, as the weather was good and I wanted to visit Carsija.

 

The beautiful Macedonian flag was flying from most of the buildings in this area. This flag depicts a stylised yellow sun on a red field, with eight broadening rays extending from the centre to the edge. This was the second attempt at a new flag by the newly independent Macedonia. Their first attempt had also depicted a stylised yellow sun centred on a red field, though this design had eight main and eight secondary rays emanating from the sun, all tapering to a point. Like me, you may think the flags have similar styles. Well, the difference is that the sun and rays on the first flag were actually an ancient symbol, known as the Vergina Sun, named after the Greek town where the symbol had been discovered in archaeological excavations. Hence, the Greeks regarded the Vergina Sun as a symbol of continuity between ancient Macedon and modern Greece and so objected to the symbol’s use on the Macedonian flag. They felt so strongly about this that it was decided to impose an economic blockade on their new neighbour until the design of the Macedonian flag was altered to the Greeks’ liking. After more than a year, to end the blockade, Macedonia decided to introduce a second flag, which was the one I saw fluttering in the breeze around Skopje, but in few other places (and that’s another story). The fledgling country of Macedonia couldn’t even have the flag it wanted.

 

There were more grand water features on my way to Carsija. One denoting the role of women in society and another depicting Philip II of Macedon. The official title of the latter piece is “Warrior with accompanying elements”, a vague description designed to avoid upsetting Greece. This vagueness didn’t work, of course. The unveiling of the Philip statue in 2012 was even planned to happen one day after a NATO meeting where Macedonia’s application to join this organisation was under consideration. The application was blocked and you can probably guess which country blocked it.

 

Carsija is a pedestrianised area of old stone-paved streets with many coffee houses, souvenir shops, restaurants, tour operators offering cheap flights to many Turkish resorts, shoe shops, and tailors. Carsija was clean and litter-free. Browsing in the shops was expected and there was absolutely no pressure to buy any item you took an interest in.

 

I visited the Sveti Spas church, partially built underground around the turn of the 18th Century, because the Turks wouldn’t allow churches to be taller than mosques. Located just outside the church is the tomb of Goce Delcev, Macedonia’s national hero, killed by the Turks in 1903. I walked up the hill to the Mustafa Pasa Mosque, built in 1492, with its gardens and fountain for washing hands and feet. On the other side of the road and through a park was the entrance to the Kale Fortress, whose ramparts provide a great view over Skopje and of the surrounding hills.

 

I could see the 66-metre high Millennium Cross built on the highest point of the Vodno mountain. Construction of the cross began in 2002 and was funded by the Macedonian Orthodox Church, by the Macedonian government and by private contributions from all points of the Macedonian diaspora. A lift was installed in the cross during 2008 and in 2011 a cable-car system, three and a half kilometres long, was built to whisk visitors to the top of the mountain from the lower slopes. At night the cross shines down over the city. Some people believe the cross was chiefly built to upset the Albanians, but I am sure no one will ever admit that.

 

I decided to eat at the London Cafe with its extensive menu and long list of local beers. An interesting feature of the menu, which I have never seen anywhere else, was that next to the list of ingredients for each dish was another list of all the allergens that would be triggered if you ate this meal. If dairy was included in the meal then dairy was included in the list of allergens. Celery was included in the list of allergens. I had never heard of this before. Celery allergies are apparently a serious problem in certain Western European countries and the cafe was being careful in informing tourists of the presence of celery, or celeriac, in their meals. Gluten-free meals were also available.

 

In the main square the fountain next to the Alexander the Great statue was now coming into its own as night fell. There were sixty small holes in the main square, six rows of ten (check this!!) out of which water would pour. Each hole contained a light that could switch colour. The water could either shoot out vertically, to a height of about six feet, or at an angle of about 45 degrees, so that it appeared to be jumping into another hole close by. This display of playing streams of water was choreographed to the accompanying music. The jets would play at the same height and then gradually decrease from one end to the other in a line, so one jet at the end of a line would have completely disappeared whilst the jet at the other end was still playing to a height of four feet. All the time the colours in each of the lines was changing. This fountain drew a large crowd, some of whom thought they could run through the fountain without getting wet. They were wrong.

 

I looked up and saw the Millennium Cross shining in the darkness behind the Alexander the Great statue. Illuminated by a spotlight, a Macedonian flag fluttered on the top of a hotel. I looked at the playing waters in front of me and realised that this fountain hadn’t upset any of Macedonia’s neighbouring countries, a not inconsiderable feat for this new country, which is trying to make its way in the world and, at the moment, is being thwarted by the overly sensitive natures of the surrounding countries.

From the book: Travels through History: The Balkans

Thesaurus

On Easter Sunday, 2009, in the Perigord region of France a local landowner, Eustace Levond, made a fascinating discovery. He was out looking for truffles in the forest when his pig, Emile, disappeared down a hole near the edge of a cliff.

Eustace was distraught and brought a spade to find Emile whose oinks were becoming less audible by the minute. Eustace eventually found Emile in a cave and was about to revive him with some Armagnac when he noticed a strange shape protruding from a layer of red shale. Levond dropped his brie, baguette, and beret in astonishment. When he had revived both Emile and himself, Eustace cleaned away the soil from the shape and found what looked like a large, ancient bone. Eustace immediately phoned his friend at the University of Toulouse, Professor Armand le Notre, who worked in the Paleontology department.

Armand carefully examined the shape and deduced that it was a dinosaur bone, almost certainly a hyoid or throat bone from a large reptile. There was also a rudimentary voicebox preserved in the rock, which le Notre believed would allow the animal to make a variety of noises. Judging by the teeth found in the beast’s skull, the reptile would have been a meat-eater and so the variety of noises the animal would have made would all have been related to the same thing i.e. consuming fresh, raw meat.

Le Notre commented thus: “The dinosaur would have emitted high-pitched noises to scare smaller animals such as dogs and birds out of the forest and into the open, whereas it would have used lower pitched noises to frighten the larger plant-eating dinosaurs of the open savannah. Either way, the variety of noises would have all meant the same thing – I want to eat you, mon ami.”

Le Notre decided to name the beast the Theosaurus, or God’s lizard, because it was originally discovered over Easter. After pressure from evangelical Christian paleontologists in the USA, the name was contracted to Thesaurus in 2011.

Toulouse

 

Toulouse is known as the “Pink City” because of the large number of buildings built from brick. These buildings include The Saint Sernin basilica, the Jacobins church and the modern art museum of Les Abattoirs. Toulouse was also involved in the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th Century and was the place where the leader of the crusade was killed five years after the initial crusade came to an end.

The basilica of St Sernin is named after the first bishop of Toulouse who was martyred by being dragged down some steps tied to the back legs of the bull he had refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. This basilica has the largest number of holy relics of any church in the south of France and this is mainly because of a large donation of them by Charlemagne, which swelled the numbers of pilgrims visiting the original church including those on their way to Santiago de Compostela. A bigger church was needed and so the current basilica was begun around 1080 and completed 270 years later.

Beautiful though St Sernin is I much preferred the church of Les Jacobins, founded by St Dominic in 1216 to try and counteract the spread of the Cathars – a sure indication that the Albigensian Crusade had failed. The inside of the church has a wonderfully light and airy feel, the decorations are kept to a minimum, and there’s only a few relics including those of St Thomas Aquinas. The most impressive feature is the single column at the eastern end of the church from whose top delicate ribs, each alternately red and green, fan out across and support the ceiling of the apse. Their pattern is quite mesmerising and they don’t look strong enough to provide support.

I visited the modern art gallery at Les Abattoirs on the other side of the River Garonne. The latest exhibition was being installed, so only the upstairs was open to visitors. including a video installation of a man being followed by an ice-breaker as he crossed the sea ice. There were also photographs of a different man burning holes in icebergs with a blowtorch. Back on the right bank of the river the Fondation Bemberg art collection in the Hotel d’Assezat (where hotel means Hall in English) has an extensive collection ranging from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Giacommetti, via Tintoretto and Picasso.

The best museum in Toulouse was the Musee des Augustins and in particular the 12th Century Romanesque sculptures. It wasn’t the actual capitals that were brilliant, but their presentation. The capitals were displayed on multi-coloured, plastic columns with a highly complex light fixture hanging from the ceiling above them. In other words, the capitals were fulfilling their original role in a modern way that illustrated their use rather than displaying them as dry museum exhibits. This was a superb idea with a lot of artistic flair thrown in for good measure.

Someone who had flair of a very different kind was Simon de Montfort. Simon headed to the Holy Land as part of the 4th Crusade, but when these crusaders attacked the city of Zara and then headed to Constantinople – acts Simon de Montfort didn’t agree with – Simon and his associates decided instead to press on to Acre where they saw action against the Saracens. Once he was back in France, Simon remained on his estates until he was called to take part in another Crusade, but this time against Christian dissidents in his own country. This was the initial campaign of the so-called Albigensian Crusade in 1209 against the Cathars, who were regarded as heretical by The Pope. After the fall of Carcassonne, Simon was elected leader of the crusade and viscount of the confiscated territories of Raymond-Roger Trencavel, who had died just after Carcassonne had surrendered.  

Simon was also rewarded with the territory conquered from Raymond VI of Toulouse, which in theory made him the most important landowner in Occitania. He soon became feared for his flair for ruthlessness. In 1210, he burned 140 Cathars in the village of Minerve who refused to recant their beliefs – though he spared the few who did. Prior to the sack of the village of Lastours, Simon brought prisoners from the nearby village of Bram and had their eyes gouged out and their ears, noses and lips cut off. One prisoner, left with a single good eye, led them into Lastours as a warning to the defenders of the three castles there.

In 1213 Simon defeated Peter II of Aragon at the Battle of Muret. In the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, this completed the defeat of the Cathars though of course many survived even after the siege of Montsegur in 1244. However, Simon carried on the crusade as a war of conquest in many parts of Raymond VI of Toulouse’s former territories; Simon besieged Beaucaire, which had been taken by Raymond VII of St-Gilles, from 6 June 1216 to 24 August 1216.

Raymond VII of St-Gilles spent most of this period in Aragon, but did correspond with sympathisers in Toulouse. There were rumours in September 1216 that he was on his way to Toulouse. Abandoning the siege of Beaucaire, Simon partially sacked Toulouse so as to punish the citizens for their correspondence with Raymond. Raymond did return in October 1217 to take possession of Toulouse. Once again, Simon hastened to besiege the city, but after maintaining the siege for nine months, Simon was killed on 25th June 1218 while combating a sneak attack by some of the besieged. Simon’s head was smashed by a stone from a mangonel, operated, according to one source, by the donas e tozas e mulhers (“ladies and girls and women”) of Toulouse. The life of Simon de Montfort was at an end.

Simon de Montfort’s fourth son was also called Simon and it was this Simon de Montfort who took part in The Baron’s Revolt in England during the reign of Henry III and who is credited with calling the first parliament in England in the 1260s. It’s this Simon de Montfort after whom one of the universities in Leicester is named.

Magnum Opus

The Magnum Opus was first seen in Dublin in Ireland in the late 19th Century. It was first felt at the Temple Bar and then seen at the Halfpenny Bridge and soon it was at all points in between. Nowadays the Opus lurks in the recesses of streets everywhere in the world and in the back of all our minds.

The Opus is a figment of people’s imaginations, it’s an urban myth, it’s cold reality on a sunny evening, and it’s always just out of sight – a convenient shadow to point to in the dusk and dawn.

The Opus has been sighted by many people and has surprised ten times as many. A flashing pair of eyes, a hiss in the night, a warm caress of bare legs, a fleeting sight on a nearby wall – most of the time that’s all there is.

Those who say they have seen this creature believe it to be a giant cat with large whiskers and yellow teeth that lurks in the shadows and hunts rats to stay alive. Its mischief knows no bounds.

From a safe hiding place on a fence, the Opus has knocked off people’s hats as they walk by and tapped others on the shoulders and then miaowed in their face when they turn around.

Underfoot it lurks on cellar steps and trips up those who have just come out of the bar. It steals food from bags that have been left on the pavement by weary shoppers waiting for the bus. You just see a flash of feline heading to the other side of the road carrying its prize.

The Opus can walk along washing lines and either unpeg washing from the line or scratch its claws on sheets left to dry. It goes through open windows and steals food from houses. It will drink the last sip of sherry from your bottle; push your favourite glasses behind the iron, and paw your papers on to the floor. You hear a purr of satisfaction.

This mercurial messenger will pull your tissues out of their box, upset your cup of tea over the cake, and change the TV channel when you’re not in the room. It will move the bookmark in your book to a different page, cause the CD to skip a track, and remove one sock from the washing machine. You just hear a swish of a tail.

Batteries lose their charge after a paw has been laid on them, lights dim with a low purring sound, and matches blow out when struck. You feel the presence of an apparition of a cat that doesn’t wish to be seen.

The Opus is everywhere and nowhere at the same time – however, if you need an excuse it will appear as if by magic.

The Black Hill Hotel

Knowles headed out into the swirling snow. The wind was blowing quite hard as he walked towards the car park. He thought he heard a noise, like a door closing, behind him, but when he looked around there was no one to be seen. He reached the Landrover and inspected it closely; nothing had been tampered with, although the snow almost reached the top of the tyres. He would still be able to drive away, if necessary. He walked past the semi-collapsed stone wall and saw the hut ahead. He looked down on the ground and saw no prints at all. The hut was made from stone and had a corrugated iron roof. Moss grew on most surfaces. The glass in the windows was mainly intact, although a couple of panes had been shot at by airgun pellets and were semi-shattered. Knowles thought he heard a noise inside the hut. He went to try and open the door and then everything became an inky blackness.

=========

The next thing Knowles knew was that hot air was being blown into his ear and something warm and sticky was caressing his face. The back of his head hurt like hell and he could feel some matted blood at the base of his neck. He opened an eye and saw a dog standing over him looking very pleased with itself. The dog looked vaguely familiar. Snow was still falling. He looked around with both eyes and saw he was lying on the edge of some woods by a field. His watch said 7:30 p.m.

“Bingo, Bingo, where are you?” shouted a familiar voice. The dog barked loudly and ran off. “Am I in Goat Parva?” thought Knowles and his head began to throb. He tried to stand up, but his head span and he fell in a crumpled heap.

The dog came running and stood over him barking loudly. Each bark sounded like a gong being struck to Knowles.

“What is it boy?” said the voice, and there was a shriek. “Bingo, you have to stop doing this”. Adelaide Hills brought herself under control and said matter-of-factly, “Bingo, because you have found this body, we shall have to go back to Betty’s and phone that nice Inspector Knowles and tell him all about it.”

“Actually,” said Knowles from the ground, “that nice Inspector Knowles is already here, in fact that nice Inspector Knowles is the body on this occasion. Thank you, Bingo, what a lovely dog you are. Now, Adelaide, tell me where are we?”

“We are on the Black Hill near Frisby Magna,” replied Adelaide.

“And you have walked all the way from Goat Parva in this weather?”

“Oh no, I drove over here by the river road to see my friend Betty, but Bingo needed a walk didn’t you Bingo, yes you did…” Bingo barked and jumped around enthusiastically and even though his head hurt, Knowles smiled.

“Adelaide can you look at the back of my head using your torch and see what the damage is?”

Adelaide Hill did as she was asked – “You’ve been hit on the back of the head with a blunt instrument by the looks of it.”

“Yes, I thought as much,” said Knowles with a large hint of irony.

“Just stay still, Inspector, I will clean the wound with some snow, it would appear you have been dragged along the ground for a few yards. I will use my scarf as a bandage.”

“Can you shine your torch over there?” said Knowles after Adelaide Hills had finished her bandaging.

Adelaide shone her torch in the direction he was pointing in – the hotel was about three hundred yards away.

“I was inspecting a hut in the trees over there when I was hit,” said Knowles, “and that’s about 400 yards away. Was I dragged all that way?”

Adelaide played the torch down his back – “You haven’t been dragged for that distance because you’d be far dirtier and more unkempt than you appear, I would say you were carried here and then dumped, so that you wouldn’t be visible from the path. That’s terrible, you were left in an exposed place, in the woods you’d have been warmer. We have to get you inside – can you stand?”

Knowles rose gradually and had to lean on Mrs Hills for a minute before the muscles in his legs registered the body weight and held him upright.

“Here’s my stick, Inspector.” Knowles took the proffered stick and leant on it gratefully.

“You need blood sugar, Inspector, so I suggest you suck a couple of these sweets, they will give you boundless energy, which is the effect they have on Bingo, isn’t it boy?”

Bingo barked with glee and Mrs Hills gave them two sweets each.

“Can we head to the hotel?” asked Knowles, “will that be alright, Adelaide?”

“Yes, I will be fine, we can walk for miles can’t we Bingo?”

Bingo barked in agreement and ran off towards the stile. Knowles looked down at Clarke’s farm – the bulls were no longer sheltering by their barn, but seemed to be more spread out. The wind must have died down and the temperature had risen as a result.

“These sweets are quite tasty, what brand are they? asked Knowles as he reached the stile.

“I buy them in bulk, I forget their name, I can let you know, the bag will be with the rest of Bingo’s food supplies.”

Knowles stopped sucking the sweets – “you mean…”.

“Oh yes…didn’t I mention that, they are dog treats…I did mention that, I am sure I did.”

Knowles shook his head slowly, but kept the sweets in his mouth, as he concentrated on climbing the stile, which seemed like Mt Everest all of a sudden.