Postbox; the magazine

Postbox cover

Launched on 4th May 2019, this is the first issue of Postbox; Scotland’s international short story magazine, published by Red Squirrel Press/Postbox Press.

We announced it late last year, and requested submissions with an end January deadline. I received over 100 submissions, and the overall standard was very high indeed. I narrowed it down, and sent my initial suggestions to Red Squirrel’s publisher, Sheila Wakefield. Looking at the total word count of the fifteen selected stories suggested they could all be published in an attractive format, and we agreed on those stories. After that I came up with a sequence which made sense to me, and then I got down to copy editing. To be honest, there wasn’t much to do there – no obvious errors or typos, and most of them very clean.

I’m a ‘light touch’ editor. I try not to change things unless I know I have to. Some of the stories had passages or sentences which I wouldn’t have written that way, if it had been me writing them. But I hadn’t written them, so I left them. I think too many editors/mentors, call them them what you will, are too interventionist; they take away the author’s intentions, their writing character. And stories which are overworked lose their freshness.

The only thing I did do was to impose consistency on text and paragraph formatting for all fifteen stories, so I could pass on a clean document to Gerry Cambridge for design and typesetting. I have my own preferences for line spacing and the like, and I know Gerry can modify these to suit the typeface he chooses.

He also chose the cover, and designed it to fit. Sheila and Gerry want to alternate the postboxes on the covers of new issues – Scottish, then international – and this first one comes from an Italian postbox.

This from my ‘Editorial’:

There’s a neatness in the [short story] form, a satisfying compactness, and a real skill in balancing brevity with telling a full story. I like originality in ideas and in the writing; I love believable dialogue, and I’m thrilled by endings I didn’t see coming, as long as they make sense in context.

The stories in this first collection fulfil these criteria and more. … What I wanted to achieve in this first issue [was] a showcase for good writing, of course, but also to reflect the wide variety of themes, subjects, treatments and styles which makes the short story such a joy to read.

Here is a list of the contents:

Kirsti Wishart: The Secret History of the Shoe Tree
Laura T Fyfe: Bell Ringing
Charlie Gracie: Hyde Bridge, Sligo
Tom Kelly: John’s Dance
Maggie Graham: Bounce and Rhyme
Colette Coen: Last Words
Tom Murray: Man in the moon
Tim Love: Oh I do like to be
Andrew McCallum Crawford: Scotch Pies
Bethany W Pope: The Hunter
Steve Urwin: The Sugar-Coated Nihilist
Reaghan Reilly: Our Little Secret
Alan Macfarlane: B-road Incident
Jennifer Gray: Shadowlands
C E Ayr: The Whale Driver

From the launch: L to R Reaghan Reilly, Tom Murray, Tom Kelly, Laura T Fyfe, Colette Coen, Maggie Graham.
Postbox authorsIt was an absolute joy to hear the authors read their words. As Tom Kelly said to me afterwards, ‘Everybody had something different to say.’

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March 2019

1st March

Headed off with grandson Morten for our little break in Argyll at Appin Holiday Homes. It was cloudy and damp when we set off, with low cloud and poor visibility. We stopped at the Green Wellie place at Tyndrum for coffee, and headed out, past Beinn Dorain and Ben an Dothaidh and up to Rannoch Moor, with the clouds lifting as we went. By the time we reached Buchaille Etive Mor we could see the top, with snow in the gullies. Glencoe was spectacular.

Past Ballahulish and on into Appin, with a sight of Castle Stalker. By Loch Creran we found our holiday lodge – Badger Sett, unpacked and settled in. We bagged the room with the twin beds, leaving Morten in the bigger bedroom with the double bed. We walked down to the Creagan Inn for a drink, and came back for our evening meal. Slept well.

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2nd March

Drove to Benderloch first thing, to get the paper in the Benderloch Supermarket, AKA The Pink Shop, which it unquestionably is. To Oban today. Weather dry to start with, but not promising. We stopped in the long stay car park and walked back into town, popping in to the odd shop. By lunchtime it had started to rain heavily, so we ran for a fish restaurant by the pier – Ee-cus. Delicious meal, then we tramped back to the car in the pouring rain. Stayed in the lodge. Morten found the games room with wi-fi and a snooker table. He’s really good company.

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3rd March

It had snowed on the hilltops overnight, so the views were really spectacular. We had decided that today would be for Glencoe. It was raining, but it didn’t dampen our spirits. We parked in the Visitor Centre and walked up the hill, taking in the first snowdrops I’d seen this year. Streams were flowing rapidly, due to the rain. Spectacular view of Clachaig Gully.

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Most of the Visitor Centre was closed for renovation and rebuilding, so we drove on to the Three Sisters car park, and walked down the hill as far as the river, but we didn’t cross. It brought back memories of walks in to the Lost Valley when Jane and I were younger. I’m sure it was in Glencoe, on the way back from our climbing course in 1963, when we decided to get married, so it’s always been a special place for us.

4th March

Fort William and Ben Nevis today. We parked in the long stay in Fort William, and walked through the town, mostly window shopping, before driving on to the Ben Nevis Range car park. We baulked at the cost of the gondola up to the ski station, and in any case we didn’t fancy tramping through snow. Instead, we went to the North Face car park along the Forestry Commission track, and headed up the track from there.

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It was rather good, but we stopped short of the tree line, which was where the snow started. We parked in a lay-by on the way back to get a look at the North Face. It’s on the right, under the clouds.

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By the time we got back to the Stalker tea room it had closed for the day, so we didn’t get our coffees and tray-bakes.

5th March

Last day in Appin. We packed up and were on our way before 10am. We had a good run back up through Glencoe and decided to head down Glen Etive. The road – single-track with passing places – seemed longer than it had on our previous visits, but they were a long time ago. It was beautiful though. We stopped at the loch and walked along the shore, picking up some of the coarse-grained granite pebbles. On the walk back, we were startled to see two semi-tame stags by the roadside, and then, shortly after, a herd of hinds.

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deer herd _Glen Etive

A great end to our trip, and Morten’s first sight of the Scottish Highlands.

 

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February 2019

Saturday 9th February

Struck down by what I think is norovirus. Very debilitating. Could not stop vomiting and/or the other thing.

Monday 11th February

Feeling much better, but very weak – I have lost half a stone over the weekend – but I am going ahead with my Newcastle reading at the Lit & Phil, one of my favourite venues. I decided to read Last Fall, from Word Play. Charlie Gracie, Brian Whittingham and Tom Kelly were also on the bill. When it came to my turn I decided to sit to read, and it felt very comfortable and cosy, as if I was drawing the audience in around me. This made it a very relaxed reading, despite never having read this one in public before, and the feedback afterwards was excellent.

I think some friends were heading for a pub afterwards, but I went straight back to my Quayside hotel and slept like a log.

Tuesday 12th February

Caught the train home and arrived around lunchtime.

In the evening to The Station Yard micropub for the first of our CoastWord Haverings events, an open mic session with featured guests. The featured musicians this time were Karen Dietz and Richard Klein, and the featured poet Nadine Aisha Jassat. The open-mic-ers were from the CoastWord committee, musicians John Hardman and Carey Lunan, writers Hannah Lavery, Carey Douglas-Carnegie and myself.

It was a great night, with the pub filled to capacity (and too warm because of that), the audience receptive and responsive. and the readings and music went very well. We kept to time too!

Friday 15th February

To Belhaven Bikes to have a new prop-stand fitted. Getting the old one off was really difficult, but my friend Colin managed it eventually.

Wednesday 20th February

An ‘approval’ meeting with the commissioning team for the Hospital Arts projects, so I was a bit nervous. Met up with Zuzana Gibb, my artist partner before the meeting, and then we did our presentations. I liked the designs Zuzana had come up with, based on my ward name suggestions. I think she captured the ideas very cleverly.

Wednesday 27th February

Our grandson Morten arrived from Germany. Jane was at her art class in the morning, so I drove to the airport to pick him up. He’s spending a couple of days with us in Dunbar before we all head off to our holiday lodge in Appin, Argyll, on 1st March.

 

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End January to early February

2019 February 7th

A meeting with the contact group for the Ward Identities project for the new East Lothian Community Hospital. In the afternoon a tour of Herdmanflat Hospital, which was fascinating.

Then to Edinburgh for the launch of Catherine Simpson’s memoir – When I had a little sister. She’s an exceptional writer. Lots of friends at the gig, and it was standing room only.

2019 February 5th

By now I had finished reading all 103 stories submitted for the Postbox magazine, and I had made my choice of stories. Sheila Wakefield had given me a word limit for the publication, and this gave me the limit for the number of stories in the inaugural issue. It’s fifteen.

Went to Inky Fingers gig at The Lighthouse bookshop. It’s a monthly open mic mic night, and the headliner was Hannah Lavery, CoastWord’s Director. She’s a brilliant poet, and I enjoyed her performance. Also, in the Pear Tree afterwards for an alcohol-free lager, I met Charlie Roy, our new PR and Media person.

In a previous incarnation, the Pear Tree was where our eldest son had his wedding reception, 25 years ago.

2019 February 2nd

To Edinburgh, for the launch of new publications by Anne Connolly, Jon Plunkett and Edwin Stockdale.

Edwin’s poetry is biographical, usually about historical figures, and almost always women. His language is evocative and beautiful, and he reads really well. I thoroughly enjoyed his set.

I hadn’t heard Jon’s poetry before. It’s energetic, direct, forceful, and he performs it from memory. He was very impressive.

Anne’s been one of my friends since, I think, the late 1990s. She and I were regular attenders at meetings of the School of Poets in the Scottish Poetry Library. I published her first pamphlet, Downside Up, which showed off her considerable talents. She’s had collections published by Stewed Rhubarb and by Red Squirrel, and Sheila Wakefield had asked me to edit this collection for her, given that we’d been friends for so long, plus the MS contained some science-inspired poems. It was lovely to hear the poems read in that musical Irish voice.

All three collections are available from the Red Squirrel Press website.

2019 January 31st

Closing date for submissions for the Postbox Press short story magazine. As usual, a last-minute flurry of entries. I started reading them, and putting them into three categories – Yes, No and Maybe. The Yesses are relatively small in number, the Noes slightly more, but I have a lot of Maybes. Further sifting will have to be done.

2019 January 30th

To Edinburgh with my Linlithgow friends, for a visit to Gladstone’s Land, which I had never previously visited. Very interesting, and a really professional tour guide. Afterwards to lunch – overpriced and not as special as it made itself out to be.

2019 January 29th

To Eyemouth for a meeting of the Eyemouth Writers group.

 

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The Writing Blog

When I revamped my website (www.colinwill.co.uk) recently, I included a new page for a writing blog. I started it with the best of intentions (honestly), but it’s proved difficult to keep it up to date. So now I’m going to make it a sort of monthly update, and post it here, as a sort of writing diary. Here are the January highlights.

2019 January 26

I’ve been very busy with entries for the new Postbox short story magazine. As of today, I’ve got 54 entries for it. I wasn’t going to start reading them until after the deadline, but I realised that, because of the volume, it would be better if I made a start earlier. The obvious Yesses and Nos are straightforward, but it’s the much larger pile of Maybes that will give me the most difficulties.

Tonight I’m ‘In Conversation’ with my friend Bruce Jamieson as part of the Further From Festival in Linlithgow. I don’t know what questions he’s going to ask me, but I hope I’m ready for anything. I know I’m going to finish with three sea poems, with brief improvised introductions on alto sax.

2019 January 14

I set a large part of my novel in a small village next to the Canal du Midi, the Eastern end to be precise. It’s a real village. I visited it in 1996 and was struck by its beauty. I liked the small centre, perched on top of a rocky outcrop overlooking the Canal. I wondered as I was writing the story whether I should use its real name, or make a name up.

I’ve come to realise I have to change it. I don’t like the idea of a future reader, if it’s ever published, being able to say ‘That’s not the village I know. It’s not like that.’ And in truth, it’s not like that now – I checked it on Google Earth, and it’s changed out of all recognition. Whether my memory is flawed – it probably is – or if I’ve been seeing it through the eyes of my imagination, I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s done. I made a name up. It sounds plausible, in my view, and there isn’t a real French village of that name in my gazetteer. There’s even a bit of low cunning, in that the name conceals the symbol for a chemical element that reveals itself only in the final chapter.

2019 January 07

When I constructed the first timeline for my novel, I wasn’t happy with it. It was too long, and it had the main character born in the same year I was, which made him too old by the last chapter, plus there were too many gaps in it, years when nothing significant happened.

Then I opened my notes and discovered a date for the first episode which was much later
than the one in my timeline. So that gave me an entry point to go back in and fix the episodes in the right chronological sequence.

The result is that he is nearly twenty years younger than he was, and the gaps have mostly closed up, making it a more compact narrative, and all the richer for it. It should also help with the pacing.

2019 January 04

Every writer’s life is different. It’s whatever we make out of the opportunities we can access, our particular likes and dislikes, and the time we have available.

I write, obviously, but I’m also Editor for Postbox Press, the literary fiction arm of Red Squirrel Press. In 2018 I edited two novels, three short story collections, two poetry collections, and I co-edited a mixed anthology with my friend Elizabeth Rimmer.

I travel near and far to do readings of poetry and prose, sometimes accompanied with music, and I lead workshops on creative writing, short story writing, poetry, how to get published, and other subjects. I’m on the Scottish Book Trust’s database of authors for the Live Literature programme, whereby organisations can be helped to bring authors to them at a reasonable cost, while authors are paid a decent sum for their contributions. Recent events have been in Falkirk, Dunbar, Stirling, and Barlinnie Prison, to name but three.

My current projects are challenging and interesting. One is that I’ve been recruited into the Ward Identities team for the East Lothian Community Hospital currently being built in Haddington. My personal role is to help staff choose the names for their new wards, in a hospital which will integrate several presently scattered health care services in one location. My aim is to ensure that the chosen names reflect the hospital’s physical and care settings.

Another major project for 2019 is to write a novel-length story, constructed from a number of novellas and short stories. That’s the plan anyway, and we’ll see how I get on. I’ll report progress.

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Influential books

 

       On Facebook recently, my friend Robert Hansen asked me to post the covers of seven books which have influenced me in some way. Initially I was posting these without comment, as requested, but I felt this was not really what I wanted to do. Some explanation of why the books were important to me might be useful to readers. So I started to add commentaries. I finished at fifteen book covers.

Then this week I was speaking to one of my friends, and he suggested I should put all the books together in one place. Here it is.

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Back in 1961 I was one of a small number of ‘Edinburgh Beats’, influenced by what I could glean of the Beat culture of 1950s America. I liked what I read of the American poetry of the time, and I bought this newly published anthology in Edinburgh’s The Paperback bookshop in Charles Street (now demolished). The shop was run by Jim Haynes, a friendly and knowledgeable American, who was also involved with the establishment of the Traverse Theatre, and the International Writers Conference, which I attended in 1962, the year of the infamous stramash between Hugh MacDiarmid and Alexander Trocchi. Anyway, reading and re-reading this book changed the direction of my life. It was the best 21 shillings I ever spent.

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An obvious one for me. Günter Grass first influenced me as a poet, and then as a novelist. The English version came out, I think, in 1962.

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I had long been interested in animal behaviour, and Schaller’s book is a classic of its kind.

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Finishing my Open University degree in maths and science, with a Distinction in Geology and Geochemistry, I wanted to change my career from one in public libraries to scientific librarianship. A job came up to take charge of the then Institute of Geological Sciences (now British Geological Survey) library in Edinburgh, and moving that library from an old building in Grange Terrace into a purpose-built new building on the King’s Building campus. I read the first edition of The Geology of Scotland, edited by Gordon Young Craig, spoke about it at my interview, and got the job. I started working there in 1973, and stayed until 1988. Subsequently, as a professional indexer, I indexed the third and fourth editions of the book for their publishers.

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Norman MacCaig was my primary school teacher at Craiglockhart Primary School for the final two years of my primary schooling. He taught me Scottish country dancing, sarcasm, and how to write stories – then called English composition.
    It wasn’t until much later that I discovered his poetry, for which I have a deep and abiding love. I regard him as the finest Scottish poet of the 20th century, bar none.
    I also discovered Assynt much later too, the land where MacCaig spent all his long summer holidays. There is something mysterious and magical about the region, the way the mountains suddenly rear up out of the ancient Lewisian basement rocks. This one’s Suilven, MacCaig’s mountain, and mine too. I climbed it on my 66th birthday on a perfect summer day in 2008.

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I like to know where people come from, where I come from, and how we ended up in the places where we are. It’s why I had my DNA analysed not long ago, to find that I have a specific marker on my Y-chromosome characteristic of those whose origins are in north-east Scotland, the land of the Picts. So I’m a Pict, which I find just hunky-dorey. I know who I am now But this book goes deeper and wider, using genetics, linguistics and archaeology to trace the routes our ancestors took.

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I’ve long been interested in and influenced by, the poetry of Japan, but this book was an eye-opener, introducing me to the shan-shui – mountains and rivers – poetry of China. 

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i love this anthology, and I’ve used it often in workshops, for the inspirational quality of many of poems it contains.

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I love Kathleen’s poetry, and in particular the exuberance of this collection. I met her on an Arvon course at Moniack Mhor, which was intense, liberating and inspirational. She continues to be a wonderful writer.

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I’m influenced by art of all kinds, and I have a soft spot for the wood-block prints of Hiroshige.

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Back when I was younger, and fitter, I did a lot of hillwalking in the Scottish mountains, including several Munros (mountains over 3,000ft high. I still love the hills.

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This is fun. I bought it back in 1961 too, and it’s well thumbed.

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I’m not a twitcher, but birds fascinate me, and I see lots around my Dunbar home.

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If I’m teaching fiction writing, this is the book I recommend. It’s practical, sensible, and should be on every beginning writer’s bookshelf, along with Stephen King’s On Writing.

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What can I say? My first book of poetry, published by Diehard Books in 1996. 

 

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Crete 6: Gortyn, Phaestos, Matala

On our final excursion of the trip we visited Gortyn, Phaistos and Matala. We rose early and were on the bus for the long drive to Gortyn. It’s a Roman town, built on a previous Minoan one. It’s very extensive, taking in three surrounding villages. In the Roman period it was the capital of Crete and Cyrenaica, and the site includes the house of the Praetor of Crete.

Passing through the entrance we came to a yard which held a variety of stone artefacts – pieces of columns, bits of marble statuary, wine and olive presses.

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The buildings are made from dressed blocks of limestone, with some sections made from classical-looking Roman bricks, much shallower than their length. They are handy for pillars, arches and similar features, and they’re used that way here.

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There are several really interesting buildings, the Odeion being the most impressive. It’s semi-circular, with tiers of marble seating. Most of the statuary is marble too, looking very classical. Around the theatre is a wall inscribed with the Cretan legal code. It’s written in boustrophedon style – left to right and right to left on successive lines. We wandered over the site until it was time to re-board our bus.

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Then on to Phaistos, a massive hilltop site overlooking the fertile plain of Mesara, which seemed to specialise in apples, onions and giant cabbages.

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The site hasn’t been reconstructed, and it felt very authentic. It was very warm, and as we walked across the extensive Upper Court the heat radiated back up from the polished slabs. We came to a wide staircase, and across from it the flat ‘theatral’ area. The first palace was started around 2000 BC, destroyed in an earthquake, rebuilt in 1700 BC, and finally destroyed in 1450 BC. In other words, the same patterns as the other Minoan sites we visited. It continued in use as a city, and is referred to in Homer. It was finally wiped out in an attack from Gortyn in 200 BC.

It’s an extremely complex site, with a maze of buildings for different purposes. In one area we came to a small building our guide said was for bronze smelting, and she invited me, knowing my geological background, to tell the group how it would have been used. I spoke about the forge in the corner, heated by charcoal with the aid of a bellows, how the alloy was made from copper from Cyprus and the tin from elsewhere.

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On some building stones we saw mason’s marks – a star, and the double-axe motif. I found Phaistos as impressive as Knossos, but for different reasons. The setting is majestic, on a hilltop overlooking the plain, and with the ruins of the domestic buildings covering the slopes. I could imagine ceremonies taking place in the central square, and I wondered again at the lives of the people in those far-off times.

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We left for Matala, which had been a hippy resort in the 1980s. Joni Mitchell came here, after the break-up with Graham Nash, and she lived in one of the caves beside the beach. Her song Carey refers to Matala. We didn’t visit the caves ourselves. They’re hand-carved as dwellings, and go back to prehistoric times.

We sat on the beach and ate our packed lunches. Then we found a café for beer and coffee.

The following day entailed a long wait for our flight home. We had time to explore the local area around our resort, and to put some of our thoughts in order.

I had been eagerly anticipating this trip, and I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would. I loved seeing the ancient sites, the museums and the towns. I loved meeting the people – they were so warm and welcoming. I loved the island and its scenery, and I am determined to return, probably in springtime so I can see the flowers.

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Crete 5: Armeni, Rethymnon, Gournia, Elounda, Spinalonga

A long drive today, through Rethymnon to our first site, the Late-Minoan (13th – 12th century BC) cemetery at Armeni. It’s an astonishing place, in an oak wood on a slope. The oaks are Kermes Oaks, with small spine-tipped leaves and large acorns in distinctive fringed cups. The tombs are cut into the hillside – presumably the limestone here is weathered and soft. We went inside a couple of the larger tombs, and it was extremely impressive. We walked around the site fairly gobsmacked, and I made a stab at identifying some of the plants. Our local guide pointed out which of them are eaten on Crete. They have a long tradition of foraging for salad herbs and pot herbs. The site was discovered when a local schoolboy unearthed a pot, back in 1967, and excavation work started in 1969. Around 220 graves have so far been discovered. The location of the settlement has not yet been established.

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Back on the bus we drove into Rethymnon itself and parked the bus by the port – we saw the cruise liner Le Laperuse moored. We had our packed lunches in a café by the port.

Then we had a walking tour of this 17th century Venetian town. The streets are narrow and bustling, but the people seemed friendly. On the other side of large square, on the opposite side from a large mosque, we went through an arch and came to the archaeological museum. It’s a much smaller building than Heraklion, but everything is beautifully displayed. The order is, as usual chronological, from Neolithic through Minoan, Roman and Venetian. We saw some of the sarcophagi which had been unearthed at Armeni.

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We watched a baker making filo pastry the traditional way.

The next day we started by visiting Gournia. Unlike the other sites, this wasn’t a palace complex; it was a town, with streets, homes and workshops. It was built on the side of a low hill, and near the top of the hill there’s a paved courtyard, and a large central hall with colonnades. We walked through the streets paved with flat stones, worn smooth and semi-polished by the feet of people. I could identify with the inhabitants here; I could picture them walking along these same streets. We saw the drainage system. Like the other Minoan sites, it was destroyed in 1450 BC.

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It was quite hot here, and as we gathered at the top of the hill we discovered our guide had brought a picnic for us all – a big bag of crisps, some raki which had been made by her father, with nuts and raisins, the latter from her father’s grapes. It was extremely pleasant, and we all enjoyed it.

Someone asked me about a purplish stone slab, which seemed out of place here. It looked to me like a sandstone, so not local, and one face was darkened, possibly by fire. There was also a slab of a creamy yellow siltstone, with some darker blebs which might be fossil burrows. Among the rubble I found a smaller angular block of purple sandstone. So it’s clear there was some importation of non-local stone for specific purposes.

We drove to Elounda, adjacent to the site of the ancient city of Olous, now submerged below the sea. It had been sited on an isthmus connecting the mainland to Poros, which is now an island. The western end of Crete is rising, while the eastern end is sinking.

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Someone said that Elounda was the place where Leonard Cohen in the Hippy Age (the 1970s) wrote the song Suzanne, but I’ve not been able to corroborate this. We drove on to the small port of Plaka, where we boarded a boat for our trip to the small island of Spinalonga.

Spinalonga’s a former Venetian fortress, converted in 1903 to a leper colony, which was abandoned only in the 1950s after a cure for the disease had been found. It was a bit bizarre, seeing elements of Venetian architecture amid more recent reconstructions, but it was fascinating. The sea was beautifully clear, little waves splashing on the pebbly shore. After the tour we had the chance to walk all round the island before returning to the landing place. We saw the fortifications, which are very impressive, and the massive limestone – even more impressive, for me anyway. It’s a deep water marine limestone, consolidated from ocean floor calcareous ooze. There were lots of signs of compression recrystallization, with calcite veins. There were also signs of slickensides – fault movement recrystallization. The sense of movement was evident from rubbing fingers up and down the fault trace – smooth in the direction of movement, rough against it.

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We boarded the boat again, our guide fending off strangers who wanted to come on board, but we were a private hire. As we set off we heard a whistle from the nearby island of Poros. Someone there was calling for a boat to take them off. My wife was much taken by the blue eyes of our skipper, made more intense by the contrast with his sun-browned face. She was obviously having a Shirley Valentine moment. Long after the film, I remember meeting Tom Conti at a party in Lennoxlove House, after a book festival event. He was charming and friendly.

We disembarked at Elounda for our packed lunch, which we took in the back room of a restaurant. I had a big glass of Cretan beer, which I enjoyed everywhere on Crete. Then we wandered along the pretty seafront, enjoying the warmth and sunshine.

We were back at the hotel in time for me to have another long swim before our evening talk on the Ariadne, Theseus and Minotaur story.

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Crete 4: Heraklion Archaeological Museum

The Museum was stunning. Our guide issued us with earbuds as she had to use a radio mike to keep her voice down inside the museum. After waiting in a long queue we started upstairs in the fresco gallery. These were the original frescoes, first excavated by Arthur Evans. They included the bull-leapers, the dolphins, the ‘Prince with the lilies’, and the cup-bearer. For years I’ve seen photos of the originals, and of the reconstructions. Now I could stand in front of them and admire. They did not disappoint.

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Downstairs we went through the galleries in chronological order, from Neolithic to the Classical Period. There’s such a wealth of material that the afternoon just wasn’t enough to take it all in. The material is from Knossos, Phaestos, Zakros, Agia Triada and other sites. We saw the still undeciphered Linear A hieroglyphs, and examples of Linear B. The ceramics were amazing – such quality, such decoration. We saw octopus, snake and bird symbols. Jane wondered about the owl symbolism, and I said I thought it might have to do with the goddess Athena. I’ve since looked it up, and the Little Owl (Athene noctua) is indeed associated with Athena. I loved the bull’s head rhyton, made from steatite, and the lioness head rhyton. We saw the two snake goddesses, one with a cat on her head. I googled the Cretan wildcat, and it’s a fearsome looking beast. The image is copyright, so I won’t post it here, but do look it up. I loved the sarcophagi. So much, just so much. It’s wonderful.

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Walking round Heraklion and the archaeological sites I reflected that I had grown up learning the Greek legends. They became part of my history, my culture. The more places I visit, the more things I see, the more languages I encounter, the more internationalist I feel. I’m a Scot of course, and I love the country I live in, but I feel my European heritage and kinship acutely, especially in these times.

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Crete 3: Lasithi Plateau, Krasi, Lato, Kritsa

Our next trip was to the Lasithi Plateau, a high, flat region surrounded by mountains. On the way up we saw lots of ravens, hooded crows, and a couple of lammergeyers, the first I’d seen since Tibet. On the way down to the plateau we saw traditional Cretan windmills, built in Venetian times to draw up artesian water and to grind grains. We gave the Diktian Cave a swerve, because our guides both said that the approach track was dangerous, the cave was unmanned, and we’d have to climb a gate to get in. We saw on the way back that the track consists of smooth limestone, polished and made slippery by thousands of visitors. The cave is reputed to be the birthplace of Zeus – but so is the cave on Mount Ida. We were treated to the story of Kronos eating his children one by one – gulp – according to our guide. Zeus was hidden by his mother, and survived to become the God of all Gods.

The plateau is farmed quite intensively, as it has deep soil and a water supply for irrigation. They grow orchard fruits and vegetables, and graze sheep and goats.

We stopped at a very nice café high up on the hillside, and had fresh juice made from oranges and pomegranates, with little warm pastries filled with a curd cheese called myzithra, and drizzled with honey. Each region has its own design for these pastries. They were delicious, as was the juice.

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We drove on through several picturesque villages and stopped at Krasi to see an ancient plane tree and the 19th century stone sinks for washing clothes, and the adjacent troughs for watering animals, all fed by spring water. On the wall there is a plaque to the distinguished Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, who loved this village. His epitaph was: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

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We drove on through several villages with narrow streets, and encountered some car drivers who didn’t appear to know how to reverse out of the way of the bus.

Back in the hotel we had an interesting conversation with a 92-year-old ex-Marine and his much younger wife.  He told us that the Lasithi Plateau was actually the site for the main German paratroop landing during the Battle of Crete in 1940. Many of the paratroopers were shot by British and New Zealand troops as they descended, which put Hitler off future paratroop operations. But landings elsewhere and the lack of re-supply meant that Crete was lost, despite the bravery of the local resistance.

In the evening we had a talk on Minoan Crete talk re-scheduled from the first day because of our Knossos trip.

After an early start the next day we headed east. Lato is a small village high in the mountains, overlooking Agios Nikolaos and the Gulf of Mirabello. Access was up a track with natural and cut stone steps. We entered at a point where featured a stone-cut cistern, once roofed, showing evidence for pillars and steps leading down to the old water level. Near there is the open-air sanctuary and a stone rostrum in the agora. Behind it is a tiered seating area. To the right is the area of workshops and dwellings. Far right there’s the theatre area, again with tiered seats, a temple with an altar, and more rooms. The larger buildings are made from massive squared-off blocks of limestone. I discussed with our guides and members of our group how difficult it must have been to shape these blocks using only granite hammer-stones (and these would have to be imported). But of course by the 4th century BC, when it was built, the Iron Age had begun in some regions, and they might have had iron tools – again imported. I don’t know the answer, but it’s a major feat of stone-masonry for the time, however it was achieved

The whole place is extremely spectacular and atmospheric. It’s of Dorian (Doric) age, 4th century BC, and it was abandoned in the 2nd century BC. Excavation only started in 1967, and it’s clear there’s a lot more to be discovered.

Later we drove the short distance to the village of Kritsa, where we visited the little domed church of Panagia Kera, dedicated to Santa Anna and Saint Antony. The whole interior is covered with wall paintings, which have been extremely well conserved. The earliest date from the 13th century. I loved the long-suffering lugubrious expressions on the faces of the saints and followers.

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