Thursday, June 30, 2022

The caves that keep on giving

 Stanley - Thursday

When I was a kid, my family went on a BIG outing to Sterkfontein Caves, about 40 kms northwest of Johannesburg. We, the kids, were eager to see if we could find Mr Ples, husband to the legendary Mrs Ples.

To set the stage for the visit, I need to go back a few years.  In the late 1800s, some limestone miners were the first to notice fossils embedded in the rock at Sterkfontein. They were smart enough to bring them to the notice of scientists. 

However it was only in 1936 that the first of a series of startling discoveries were made at Sterkfontein. Students of Drs Raymond Dart and Robert Broom from my alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand, unearthed the first adult Australopithecine, which reinforced Dart's claim that remains found at a place called Taungs by quarrymen and named Australopithecus Africanus - the southern ape from Africa "was an extinct race of apes intermediate between living anthropoids and man". The paper appeared in the 7 February 1925 issue of the journal Nature. The fossil was soon nicknamed the Taung Child. For a variety of reasons, most scientists initially rejected Dart's theory. (If you are interested in conflict and dissension in the scientific community, it's worth reading Taung Child.)

Taung's Child

It was the discovery of the Australopithecine at Sterkfontein that caused the tide to turn with respect to acce[ptance of Dart's theory.

Back to Mrs Ples! After World War II, Broom continued to work at Sterkfontein and found a nearly complete female skull, which was classified as Plesianthropus transvaalensis, but quickly came known as Mrs Ples. It is now classified as an Australopithecus Africanus, and was thought to be about 2.1 million years old, much more recent than Lucy, the Australopithecine found in Ethiopia by Donald Johnson, which is thought to be 3.2 million years old. (It's interesting to note that Lucy got her name because the Beatle's song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was played incessantly at the dig.)

Mrs Ples

So, off my family went in search of Mrs Ples's wayward husband. We were unsuccessful.

However, Sterkfontein was not finished with what it had to offer. In 1997, a nearly complete skeleton of a second species of Australopithecus was found in the caves by Ronald J Clarke. Extraction of the remains from the surrounding breccia is still ongoing. The skeleton was named Little Foot, since the first parts found (actually, in storage, in 1995) were the bones of a foot.

Little Foot

To date, Sterkfontein has yielded over 500 hominids, making it the richest site in Africa and one of the richest anywhere.

In 1999, UNESCO declared the area around Sterkfontein  a World Heritage site, which currently occupies 47,000 hectares (180 sq mi) and contains a complex system of limestone caves. It is known as the Cradle of Humankind and has a fascinating interpretative centre.

But wait, there's more.

On 13 September 2013, while exploring the Rising Star caves in the Cradle of Humankind, two cavers, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, found hominem fossils, that were to become known as Homo Naledi, dated to about 335,000–236,000 years ago.

Artist's rendering of Homo Naledi.

You can read about this amazing discovery, as well as the remarkable actions that had to be taken by lead investigator Prof Lee Berger and his team of cave astronauts - all female! - in Michael's wonderful blog written in September 2015.

Remarkably, the Naledi discovery followed another astonishing find - by Berger's son Matthew in 2008 - namely Australopithecus Sediba. The skeletons are about 2 million years old and almost complete.

This is Matthew Berger

This is Australopithecus Sediba

Needless to say, each find ignites discussion and controversy as to where it fits into both the historic timeframe and genealogy of modern humans. It has been generally accepted that Lucy is about 3 or so million years old, while the oldest finds at Sterkfontein were thought to be considerably younger. This then led to the belief that East Africa was the more likely origin of the earliest hominin that eventually evolved into the Homo genus we belong to.

But wait, there's even more!

A study published this week found the some of the Australopithecus fossils are a million years older that previously though and are about 3.4 million to 3.6 million years. This puts them around the same time as Lucy and others in East Africa. The researchers, including experts from Johannesburg and France, examined radioactive decay in rocks buried at the same time as the fossils, whereas earlier estimates were based on calcite flowstone deposits.

The study indicates that the South African hominins, which had been considered “too young” to be ancestors of the Homo genus, were actually “contemporaries” of those in East Africa and had the time to evolve, said Dominic Stratford, director of research at the caves and one of the paper’s authors.

“This important new dating work pushes the age of some of the most interesting fossils in human evolution research, and one of South Africa’s most iconic fossils, Mrs. Ples, back a million years to a time when, in East Africa, we find other iconic early hominins like Lucy,” he said.

Quite frankly, I don't understand very much about any of this, but what I do know is that the caves I crawled through when a kid, looking for Mr Ples have yielded unbelievable riches in our quest to understand our origins. If you visit South Africa, a visit to the Cradle of Humankind should be near the top of your list.

Maropeng Visitor Centre at the Cradle of Humankind

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The "Wife's Help"; Writing about abortion in historical fiction

 Sujata Massey

About two years ago, I started work on a new book in the Perveen Mistry historical mystery series. The beginning is a lot of fun. Searching for historical events and themes to explore is typically a magical period of big dreaming. To coax out story ideas, I reach into the messy purse that is my brain, the spot where memories and idea fragments coexist like torn candy wrappers and soiled pennies. 

What I pulled out of the bag was the notion of reproductive rights. It didn't take long for me to realize I could become passionate about writing a story that illuminated these health and freedom challenges faced by women in 1920s India. How would their choices be different than a modern woman's? Especially if laws existed to punish those who tried not to bear children, either through contraception or abortion? 

In the vintage photograph above, women of the Kurni (tilling) caste pose together for a colonial photographer. How many of the women are mothers, and how many children do this group collectively have? Surely some of them are mothers and daughters. And I wonder--do the small girls flanking the ends of the group already have husbands? 

I believe that abortion is an understandable part of reproductive life—just like menstruation, childbirth and contraception and venereal disease. I haven’t shied away from writing about these aspects of women's lives in my feminist mystery series set in 1920s Bombay. Therefore, the fourth novel in the series became the perfect entry point for my lawyer heroine, Perveen Mistry, to assist an illiterate ayah charged with the crime of abortion. Slated for publication in June 2023, tThe Mistress of Bhatia House also includes scenes with Perveen secretly reading a banned book about contraception, and deliberating over whether she should assist a contentious group of women volunteers trying to establish a maternity hospital. 

Abortion law in India was created along with the arrival of the British. In the early East India Company times, criminal courts administered by British officers were set up; however, prosecutions of abortion were rare. A chief reason was that life was defined as starting at quickening: the time in pregnancy, somewhere between the fourth and fifth month, that a baby’s movements can be felt. Colonial government had greater concern about criminal prosecutions of people committing infanticide on young babies, the burning of widows, and other "easy to see" crimes. This laissez faire attitude toward abortion matched the mood of judges in Britain and the United States during the same time period, who all regarded quickening as the start of human life.


For most of India’s history, the midwife (called a dai) was the one who performed gynecological care in humble villages and bustling towns. A woman who missed a period would go to the local dai to request a herbal tea known to lead to cramping and the onset of menses.  Many women regularly drank such teas, which were even nicknamed “Wife’s Help.” Women were taught that a husband’s desire had to be obeyed, even if the outcome meant too many children to care for, or physical damage to a woman’s body from unending pregnancies and deliveries. Mitra Sharif, a University of Wisconsin professor of law and an authority on the history of law in colonial India, dives deep into the medico-legal history of abortion in a lengthy, fascinating article that appeared in Modern Asian Studies. 

As Dr. Sharafi learned from researching hundreds of legal documents, newspaper articles, and books, on occasion the medicinal teas were unexpectedly poisonous, causing great suffering or even death. And sometimes, dais used sticks or other crude means to disrupt a pregnancy. Varied poisons including gunpowder and arsenic were sometimes administered to pregnant women by uneducated family members—with death as a consequence. And it wasn't only Indian women who sought to end pregnancies. British colonial women also had the same need, and when one such wife died following an illegal procedure performed by a medical doctor in the colonial system, the case went to court.

Rajasthani women in British Colonial India

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the British took formal control over half the subcontinent. This meant that by 1860, the Indian Penal Code was created, and it included a revised definition of the criminality of abortion (as well as homosexuality, but that's a long story for another day). 

Under the Indian Penal Code, quickening was no longer the defining factor in a baby's viability. An attempt to end a pregnancy at any stage was considered abortion, and midwives in India were now at risk of being prosecuted as abortionists. The stress was on convicting the 'perpetrators' of abortion rather than 'victims'; in fact, the law was presented as protecting India's women. In Britain and the United States, abortion was also redefined after 1860 as a more serious crime that could be prosecuted in cases where a pregnancy was terminated earlier than the fourth month.

N.S. Phadke


Why did these countries have a sudden interest in outlawing abortion? 


One idea floating around elite people were becoming interested in eugenics, a pseudo-scientific theory about the genetic superiority and inferiority of various races. In the US, doctors in the all-white American Medical Association advocated for the birth of more White children to form a protective block against what was perceived as a surge of immigrant and Black births—and abortion laws meant reducing numbers of Black midwives. The notion of sterilizing members of unsavory social classes in Britain was seriously considered by government officials.

In 1920s Bombay, philosophy professor N.S. Phadke lectured and wrote about some modern contraceptive methods of Europe, such as the diaphragm, arguing that bringing contraception to India would decrease the number of poor people bearing children at young ages and allow for the dominance of wealthy, higher caste people to reproduce (and successfully gain India’s freedom!). His 1927 reproductive education book, Sex Problem in India, has an introduction by Margaret Sanger. I ordered a replica edition to be made in India from a digital scan. After reading Phadke's provocative commentary, I decided to get it into Perveen's hands. 


Francis Galton, definer of Eugenics 

Eugenics were about contraception and keeping birth rates down. Abortion laws in India served an adjacent purpose by making it more difficult for dais to practice. Also, the prohibition of abortion also made it a weapon for people to use against each other. For example, unscrupulous  in-laws wishing to expel a widow from their home could report to the police shed had an abortion. Such immorality would disqualify her from continued support, and if she had any assets left by her late husband, the family could seize them. Other villains using abortion as a weapon were constables shaking down women’s families for bribes in exchange for not accusing them. Enough corrupt cases came to court that laws were passed making it a crime to falsely accuse someone of abortion.

But accusations are real, and they are dangerous. Right now, there's an abortion vigilante law in Texas that offers cash bounties to anyone assisting the police with information leading to the arrest of a woman obtaining an abortion; not just in-state, where it's illegal, but out of state as well.  


The Texas nightmare arose two years after I started The Mistress of Bhatia House. However, I felt increasingly worried for women after Donald Trump was elected in 2016 with the support of many people wishing to outlaw abortion. In the past six years, many states passed laws that made it more difficult for women to obtain abortions in their states, and also for doctors and nurse practitioners to perform abortions. Thirteen states passed ‘trigger laws’ to ban abortions entirely within 30 days of a Supreme Court decision overturning 1973’s Roe versus Wade decision establishing abortion as a constitutional right. The Supreme Court’s new appointees, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, refused to admit that they would vote to take away the right to abortion. 

But last week, that's what they did.


Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Dark Deeds and Fresh Blood

This year's longlistees are a diverse array of crime & thriller tales

Craig every second Tuesday

Kia ora and gidday everyone,

Hope all of you reading have had a great solstice in the past week - Summer Solstice in the north (and Midsommar in Sweden - we celebrated on Saturday with some Swedish friends at our allotment garden) and Winter Solstice for my friends and family in Aotearoa New Zealand and other countries in the south. 

Last week was also notable in New Zealand (well, in the crime writing world, at least) for the reveal of the longlist for the 2022 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel. The 'Ngaios' as they are colloquially known, have been running since 2010 and celebrate the best crime, mystery, thriller, and suspense writing from New Zealand authors. 

As someone who's been involved with the Ngaios since the very beginning, it's been wonderful to see the growth in entries over the years, and even moreso the breadth, quality, and diversity of the stories being written. 

After studying law in Duendin, wannabe playwright Fergus Hume wrote THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB as a calling card for Melbourne theatre producers

New Zealand has a long history in crime writing - in fact the bestselling detective novel of the nineteenth century was written by a Kiwi - THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB (1886) by Fergus Hume, which outsold the likes of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novel A STUDY IN SCARLET at the time. And of course there's Dame Ngaio, who our local crime award honour - one of the four Queens of Crime of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (alongside Christie, Sayers, and Allingham). But it certainly seems to be going through a 'boom' in the past decade or more. 

This year's longlist for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel is a showcase of that, with three past Ngaios winners joined by several past finalists and longlistees and five first-time entrants - four of whom are debut novelists. 

I thought I'd take this chance to introduce you to the longlisted authors and books - some of whom you may be familiar with, there's some international bestsellers and award-winners among them, while others will be new. 

Angelique Kasmara is an Auckland author who was born in Indonesia. Her debut novel ISOBAR PRECINCT is an audacious tale set in a vivid, grimy inner-city Auckland where a tattoo artist gets entangled with a teen runaway, a married cop, a murder in a downtown Auckland cemetery, and a covert clinical trial targeting rough sleepers. 

Ben Sanders is an Auckland author whose first crime was published when he was 21 and studying engineering at university. He is a multiple-time finalist for the Ngaio Marsh Awards. His seventh novel THE DEVILS YOU KNOW features Vincent, a middle-aged former military operative trying to eschew guns and death for a life of surfing and high-end security for a supermarket boss in California. But his new boss has some secrets ... 

DV Bishop is an experienced Kiwi storyteller living in Scotland whose resume ranges across comic book writing and editing (Judge Dredd, 2000 AD), screenplays, BBC radio dramas, and Dr Who novels. His first historical mystery, CITY OF VENGEANCE, introduces Cesare Aldo, an officer of Renaissance Florence's most feared criminal court who must investigate the killing of a Jewish moneylender and prevent a coup while keeping his own dangerous secrets. 

Jacqueline Bublitz is an author who shares her time between Melbourne and her hometown of New Plymouth. Her debut novel BEFORE YOU KNEW MY NAME was rejected by 49 agents and has recently won the ABIA General Fiction Award in Australia and been shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger. It flips the script on 'jogger discovers a dead body in a park' with her story following the jogger and the victim rather than the cops investigating the crime. 

JP Pomare is a Māori storyteller (Ngā Puhi) who grew up in Rotorua and now lives in Melbourne, Australia. He won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel in 2019 for CALL ME EVIE, and is a three-time Ngaios finalist. THE LAST GUESTS is a psychological thriller about a young couple who decide to rent out their inherited lake house, only for strange things to start happening, deadly things. But the couple have been keeping their own secrets too. 

Kirsten McDougall is an award-winning Wellington storyteller whose previous work has been longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and a finalist for the Ngaios. SHE'S A KILLER is a near-future climate thriller about thirtysomething Alice, a brilliant yet stubborn slacker who is drawn into radical action as the world is in crisis and New Zealand has become divided and reshaped by an influx of privileged immigrant 'wealthugees'. 

Lizzie Harwood is an Auckland author who grew up on Great Barrier Island and lived overseas (primarily Paris) for two decades. Her debut novel POLAROID NIGHTS is set against the nightlife of 1990s Auckland, and as an unpublished manuscript won the inaugural NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize for 'new writing with a unique and original vision'. When Betty's ex is murdered and left in her bed, she hits the bar world to uncover who did it. 

Mark Wightman is an Edinburgh-born New Zealand citizen who grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore. His debut novel WAKING THE TIGER is a murder mystery set in 1939 Singapore where Inspector Maximo Betancourt investigates the murder of a young Japanese woman found dead on the dockside. Mark's debut was also shortlisted for the Bloody Scotland Scottish Crime Debut of the Year and the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger. 

Nalini Singh is a Fiji-born West Auckland author. Over the past 20 years she's become globally renowned as a Queen of Paranormal Romance, writing many New York Times bestsellers. QUIET IN HER BONES is Nalini's second crime novel. When the body of socialite Nina Rai is found ten years after her disappearance, her son Aarav launches his own investigation. But gaps in his memory and suspicious neighbours mean he can't trust anyone, even himself. 

Nikki Crutchley is a Cambridge author and two-time past Ngaios finalist. Her fourth novel TO THE SEA is a psychological thriller about a family living on Iluka, an idyllic coastal plantation that seems like paradise but has a violent past. Iluka is the only home that teenager Ana has ever known, but when a stranger arrives she must make a life-changing choice between protecting all she loves or uncovering the truth. 

Paul Cleave is a Christchurch author and three-time Ngaio Marsh Award winner. Paul's thrillers have been shortlisted for the Edgar and Barry Awards in the United States, and won the Saint-Maur book festival's crime novel of the year award in France. In THE QUIET PEOPLE, husband-and-wife crime writers Cameron and Lisa Murdoch's lives are upturned when their son goes missing and the media, public, and police view them as suspects not victims. 

RWR McDonald is a Melbourne based author who grew up on a sheep and deer farm in Otago. His debut THE NANCYS won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel in 2020. This sequel sees unlikely investigative trio of Tippy Chan, a 12-year old girl grieving her father's death, and her Uncle Pike from Sydney and his fashionista boyfriend Devon - 'the Nancys' - attempt to uncover the truth behind a deadly explosion in small-town Riverstone. 

Phew, so there you go. Plenty of enticing reads there. Kiwi crime writing, or 'yeahnoir' as it's called (a play on the famed Kiwi saying 'yeah, nah') is going from strength to strength. The finalists for the 2022 Ngaio Marsh Awards - in both the Best Novel and Best First Novel categories - will be announced in early August, with the finalists celebrated and the winners named at a special event in September in Christchurch, the hometown of Dame Ngaio. 

Until next time. Ka kite anō. 

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 

Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei

(Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain)

A view across to Aoraki/Mt Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand

Monday, June 27, 2022

True Believers

 Annamaria used to be one!

My 4th grade class, Our Lady of Lourdes School

"I went to Catholic school."  In meetings I sometimes say this - to comic effect - to explain why I am compulsively following a rule.  Sometimes, after a pause, I add the line, "For seventeen years."  I have gotten a lot of laughs with these lines.  People who have a similar education history laugh loudest and nod in camaraderie.

In the wake of this week's US Supreme Court decision, I confess that today I am not playing that line for laughs.  Fair warning: I am beside myself angry.

It is a fact that from ages 5 to 22, most of the major influencers in my intellectual life were nuns.  Contrary to the popular stereotype, at least 80% of them were kind, supportive, and great at their jobs.  There were a few harsh ones, but I would imagine that would be true in any kind of school in those long-ago days.  When I finished college, I left that milieu a well-educated and deeply devout Catholic.

Same kids, same steps, 4 years later

Then, however, by the time I was thirty-one, I had given up the faith.  For a while I called myself an agnostic.  Now I am an atheist.

St. John's High School, some of the same kids

But I remember vividly a great deal of what the nuns taught me.  Today I want focus on what they taught about the separation of church and state. When I was in the fourth grade, back in the time of the Peloponnesian Wars, there were still many European countries that had state religions.  Most notably for us kids, Italy and Ireland -birthplaces of most of our grandparents - were Catholic countries.  "Is that better than what we have here - separation of church and state?" Sister asked.  "No" was the right answer.  Why?  Because if the government could dictate a religion, and if it chose a different one from ours, we might end up being required to practice a religion dictated by the government.  We were much better off living in a country that granted everyone the right to worship (or not) as they choose. This was the very essence of freedom.

Freshman class, College of St. Elizabeth
Convent, New Jersey

The good sense of this was made abundantly clear when we studied, in history class in college, what went on in Great Britain at the end of the Sixteenth and the beginning of the Seventeenth centuries.  When heads, quite literally, rolled: Protestant heads chopped off by Catholics and Catholic heads chopped off by Protestants.    

I never belittle or dismiss what people believe and how zealous they feel about the tenets of their faith.  After all I, my educated self believed in the virgin birth until I was thirty.  If people's religion teaches them that an abortion anytime after conception is a form of murder, I absolutely believe they should be free never to have or to perform an abortion.  If the government tried to take control of their right to have children, I would lay down my life to preserve their freedom to be left alone to do so, regardless of the circumstances.

All those people rejoicing over the death of Roe v Wade in the streets today...  Does it never occur to them that if their beliefs can force today's women - even a fourteen-year-old girl who has been raped by her father - to give birth to a child, that one day, when the tables turn, it could force them to abort a child for whatever excuse the government trumped up.

It kills me that many of these same "Right to Life" people will defend an eighteen year old's right to own weapons of war and body armor, even though we know that some of them will murder children in school or deliver the death penalty to people guilty of grocery shopping while black.  The right-to-life crowd do not want those young people stripped of their rights to tote AK47s.


This past week, 51% if the citizen's of half the states in the U.S. had a right and a freedom ripped from them. By five people.  One. Two.Three. Four. Five.

A minority of the citizenry demanded the decision.  Five powerful people with nothing to lose agreed with them.  And the rest of us are forced to live with it.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Taking a Fence:

And How to Judge if it’s Done Well 

Zoë Sharp


By the time you read this, I will be standing out in the middle of a field somewhere, probably in the rain. (It is, after all, almost July in the UK.)


The reason for actually taking a day away from my computer keyboard may sound like a strange one, although they reckon people do things as a hobby that you could not possibly pay them enough to do as a job.


I shall be attending the Dubarry British Eventing Horse Trials, being held at Eland Lodge at Draycott-in-the-Clay, near Ashbourne in Derbyshire. Not competing, I hasten to add, nor as a spectator. Instead, I’ll be fence judging on the cross-country phase of the event.


Well, I did say it might sound like a slightly strange way to spend a Sunday, but each to their own.


It’s a very long time since I actually took part in any kind of equestrian event, but I still enjoy watching the combination of bravery and skill demanded by eventing at any level. And it’s very satisfying to know I’m one of the large number of small cogs that help the day run smoothly.


It’s a nice theory, anyway.


Safety First

The main reason you have fence judges for a cross-country event is for safety. We are there to ensure the course is clear of spectators when the next rider approaches our obstacle, and to be immediately on hand if anything goes awry.


The last time I was doing this, I managed to catch two loose horses who’d dumped their riders. One had been attempting the fence before, and one the fence after. We also ended up summoning the paramedics—always on stand-by at competitions like this—for a fallen rider, and making sure she was clear of the course as soon as it was decided she was OK to move.


OK, this is a loose racehorse rather than an eventer,
but you get the idea...

Horse riding, it has to be said, is one of the most dangerous pastimes you can indulge in, along with skiing and motorcycling. What does it say about me that I’ve been known to do all three? (Not simultaneously.) Even with the advent of body armour and air jackets for riders these days, it’s still a risky thing to do. For those who haven’t come across one before, an air jacket looks like a waistcoat, but as soon as rider and horse are separated, an air canister triggers so it explodes into a very tight life jacket around the rider’s ribcage, and prevents the ribs being crushed in a rotational fall.

Most riders now choose to wear protective body armour or an
air jacket while out on their horses, regardless of activity.

Direction and speed

The fence judges are also there, of course, to make sure that each competitor attempts the correct fence, takes the correct route if the obstacle has several parts, and doesn’t incur any penalties.


Because cross country fences, unlike show jumps, are semi-permanent obstacles, you cannot easily alter the size of them between classes, so there are often several fences of differing heights in the same spot. If the rider has walked the course beforehand, they should know which one they need to aim for. If they need a memory jogger, the fence numbers are colour-coded for each class. But there are plenty who still get it wrong.


Jumping the wrong fence, and not going back to correct the mistake by jumping the right one, results in elimination from the event. 

The coloured numbers at the right-hand side of this pic
indicate the route for different classes on the day.

To stop people galloping madly at big cross-country fences in an attempt to finish the course fastest, there is an optimum time. Most riders will try to get as close to this as possible. Going too fast will not only exhaust the horse, but for every second in excess of 15 seconds under the optimum time, the rider scores 0.4 penalties. The same penalties per second are scored for every second over the optimum time.


There is an optimum time for every event, so going too fast 
can result in as many penalties as going too slow.


By its nature, a cross-country course is a test of horse and rider. Often fences will be very narrow, and must be jumped between the flags. If the rider catches a flag with their foot, for instance, and knocks it over, it’s up to the fence judges to decide if a genuine attempt was made to jump the obstacle, or whether it should count as a run-out, scoring 20 penalties, and requiring the rider to re-present to the fence.


A second stop at the same obstacle scores 40 penalties. Three stops and you’re out, unless it’s a novice event, and then they tend to let you keep going, as long as you don’t hold up the competitors coming along behind you at timed intervals.


An example of a narrow fence. The horse must
jump between the flags.

In the smaller and more novice classes, there can be a bit of dithering before a fence. This often happens where the landing side is much lower than the take-off side, or when jumping into water, if the horse isn’t very experienced.


There can be a bit of dithering before an inexperienced horse jumps 
into water, but as long as they don't step backwards, they're OK.

Providing the horse doesn’t take a step back with any foot, and the rider doesn’t circle away, even jumping from a standstill may still result in a clear. It’s not to be recommended, though, and it will make it very difficult to meet that optimum time, which relies on a reasonable forward pace.


Of course, if we have the typical British weather—ie, downpour—it can make the ground fairly treacherous. Fortunately, many of Eland’s fences have all-weather take-off and landing areas, so even if it chucks it down, that’s one less thing to worry about.


I confess I would not like to be jumping in these conditions.
Studs in the horse's shoes to provide extra grip are a must.

At one time, cross-country fences were fixed timber, and hitting one had nasty results. These days, they have come up with frangible pins, which allow the fence to partially collapse—enough, hopefully, for the horse to recover its balance without incident.


The devices which allow the top rail to drop down may prevent a fall,
although penalties are awarded if any are triggered.

So, think of me today, with whistle (for clearing a path) stopwatch (in case someone is held on the course, so we can time their stop and re-start delay) radio, and clipboard. I shall also have bug spray, sun cream, a rain jacket, and a folding chair.


For their part, Eland provides all their event volunteers with breakfast, a packed lunch, and supper at the end of the day, as well as flasks of tea and coffee, and—if it’s a fine day—even the occasional ice cream.


How have you been spending your Sunday?


This week’s Word of the Week is nudiustertian, meaning the day before yesterday. It comes from the Latin nudius tertius—today is the third day. Coined by Nathaniel Ward (1578-1652) in his work, The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America of 1647.



I was delighted to be interviewed this week by fellow crime author Dawn Brookes for her podcast series The All Things Books Show. Catch it on YouTube:



Saturday, June 25, 2022

Revisiting the Magic of Greece



Today, I want us to return to a magical place that represents the sort of inspirational magic that perpetually draws me home to Greece.   I sadly haven't visited Hosios Loukas Monastery in a half-dozen years, a common admission in these how-quickly-time-flies years.

It’s perched on a western foothill of Mount Helicon, twenty miles east of Delphi, a mile and a half from any sign of modern times—aside from the narrow paved road that winds through hillsides covered in fir, cedar, myrtle, arbutus and pine; high above a broad green valley filled with cultivated olives, almonds, and patches of grape, all running off toward distant limestone mountain slopes.

Mythology describes this place as a favorite haunt of antiquities’ Muses, and from the way it still looks today, who am I to disagree?

1743 Woodcut of Monastery

Hosios Loukas
But the history that drew me to this place is of more recent vintage, only eleven centuries ago.  In the early 10th Century, a holy and pious hermit (osios in Greek) Loukas (896-953), born in what is today modern Delphi, endured a life marked by raids by Slavs, Arabs, Saracens, and Bulgarians, before finding his way into this valley of awe-inspiring natural beauty.  There he began construction of the only church built on mainland Greece in the tenth-century. That Church of Panaghia (the Virgin Mary) still stands today within the walls of Greece’s largest extant monastery from Byzantium’s second golden age, and adjacent to Greece’s oldest existing dome-octagon church, the Katholikon (big church) of Hosios Loukas.

Courtyard with front of Church and Katholikon to right

Front (west side) Katholikon

Rear (east side) Katholion (left) and Church

Beneath the Katholicon is the Crypt of Saint Barbara, the monastery’s oldest church and a place of massive stone pillars erected to support the domes of the Katholikon above—and to which it is said monks once chained psychopaths until cured of their madness [Ed Note:  Please refrain from suggesting there's a modern day Saint Barbara confronting her own live-in madman.]  

Here, too, lay the tomb of Hosios Loukas (sainted as Luke of Steiris) beneath an oil lamp kept burning for ten centuries by monks devoted to him.  But don’t take for granted the answer to, “Who’s buried in Hosios Loukas’ tomb?” for in 1011 his remains were removed, and now reside in a glass-enclosed reliquary beneath its own perpetually burning oil lamp in a place of honor off a passageway between the naves of the Church and Katholikon. 

Crypt of Saint Barbara

Crypt of Saint Barbara and Tomb of Hosios Loukas

Saint Barbara
In keeping with the teachings of Greece’s ancient temple builders, the monastery sits in harmony with its natural surroundings. Terra cotta roof tiles, above classical Byzantine cloisonné-style masonry walls of marble, brick, and limestone, enclosed frescos and mosaic masterpieces set upon backgrounds of gold.  But only a fraction of the monastery’s legendary lavish decoration remains, the balance of the place’s precious gold and silver plate, murals, icons, and furnishings lost to time and plunderers.

Come here at sunset, when shadows are long and light practices its magic upon the monastery’s rusty earth-tone architectural jags and juts, contours and edges.  You’ll soon lose track not only of time, but of centuries.  A thousand years old, the Monastery of Hosios Loukas remains an isolated sanctuary of tranquility, one of the Mediterranean’s most impressive monuments, and a World Heritage Site.

A wave from another saintly Barbara

Perhaps because I’m a mystery writer, each time I visit places of such sustaining great beauty, I can’t help but think of what haunting secret intrigues, betrayals, bloodshed, and accommodations to the times through which they passed allowed them to flourish while others vanished from the earth.  Sure, there’s a bit of luck involved in averting disaster, for in 1943 Nazi planes tried to destroy the monastery but failed. Or maybe it was answered prayers.

But to me, Hosios Loukas brings a very specific memory of unanswered prayers to mind, one that I and many Greeks will never forget.  To reach the Monastery, you first pass through the farming villages of Distomo and Steiri.  Distomo is a name known to every Greek of a certain age.  A place of execution, of massacre, where for two hours on June 10, 1944, Nazi SS troops went door-to-door, murdering 214 civilians, bayonetting babies in their cribs, beheading the local priest.  Slaughter haunted this place…and is remembered—as it should be—so that no one forgets how brutal can be the results of unchecked political myopic madness. 

And so, permit me to close on a more upbeat note...and great deal for you.  I'm pleased to announce that through Tuesday, June 28th, my 11th Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, A DEADLY TWIST, is available across all e-book formats for US$2.99. Just click on this link and voila, you can buy it. It's the unexpurgated version of the novel Reader's Digest included in its January 2022 Select Editions volume 383.