Reposted from 2014 – because I think it’s a good ‘un.

ROADSIDE PICNIC, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Published by Gollancz Sciene Fiction, 1977

CAUTION Contains Spoilers!


For such a short book this is extraordinarily provocative.
Published in the Soviet Union by two technical and science professionals, the novel keeps close to the real world. And this allows any deviation to appear even more devastating.
The book gives us a number of accounts over a period of time, of an event that happened in the recent past.
Style-wise we hear ‘70’s gritty Americana, full of dime-store fiction traits, and reeling with unregenerated gender mine-fields. The setting of the book is in fact i’n undisclosed areas.

The basic premise is given early on, and we learn the details and consequences as the different narratives develop.
Twenty year’s previously the Earth was visited by an alien race. It seemed to happen on a sudden and be over before anyone realised.
The opening narrator is a Nobel Prize winning scientist, whose work revealed the origin of the Visitation to have been in the region of Cygnus. Coming in on the earth’s transit the Visitors landed in an arc of six separate places across the surface of the earth.
What was discovered in these places afterwards was so anomalous and dangerous that these landing places had to be fenced off, isolated: people had to be protected from them. The Zones were the site of strange artefacts, substances, occurrences.

Local people not caught in the original Visit became ensnared in a fascination for the Zone. Stalkers would enter in secret , learn safe pathways, where the danger areas were, and bring out objects. Red Schuhart was one of these. Stalking was punishable by imprisonment, but it was a compulsion. The objects retrieved developed their own black market system, because some, like the batteries that never ran out, showed great potential.  But there were also spillages: ditches full of ‘witches  jelly’ which we later learn was colloidal gas – no matter what the name, its effect on the human body was devastating.

Stalkers developed their own terminology for what they came across in the Zone: ‘witches jelly’, ‘so-so’s’, ‘mosquito mange’, ‘black sprays’.
Scientific Institutes provided a legitimate outlet for interest in the Zones. Red took a post at the Institute. His boss was a Russian, Kirill, the only one Red could respect and admire. Kirill’s motives were purely scientific, but he was careful, knew how to play the game with the authorities, and yet retain his integrity.
They were working with ‘empties’, until  Red mentioned he knew where there were some ‘full empties’. What were these? No one knew – the Zones contained areas of a completely unknown kind of physics. ‘Empties’ were like glass jars, with metal top and bottom – only the glass, or whatever was the container material was not visible or accessible to analysis: two metal discs held in an unbreakable relationship; but Red had seen them contain blue material in between.

In one of the witty concepts of the book they gained a license to enter the Zone, and used the ‘flying boot’, a kind of hover car. The ‘full empties’ were obtained, and Red was paid handsomely, but the consequences were severe: a moment’s lapse of concentration led to disaster. And guilt. Money, guilt and a mind increasingly disordered by Stalking in the Zone, left Red to count the continual cost.

What was the Visitation? At one point Red runs through the possibilities – was it a statement of intent by an alien race, of contact? Will they come again? It was certainly an indication that we are not alone in the universe, and that there were other intelligent beings out there. That they had an interest in us.
Later he wondered with a jolt – was it the beginning of an invasion? A slow seep of poisonous ideas and materials into our ordered world?
Or was it, as someone else said, just a roadside picnic site – that they never even knew or cared we were there? That all these objects, anomalies left behind, were just the garbage and refuse of lazy, loutish picnic-ers?

All this alien technology threw our own scientific knowledge and certainties into the waste bin. And along with them our ideas and hopes of progress. Our own civilisations can be seen to be no more that errors, blips, on the universe.

On a political level, the book, written in the coldest parts of the Cold War, gives us the greatest achievements of two civilisations: the American, and the Soviet. If these are only roadside picnic spots, then in the way the alien science throws all earth’s discoveries in physics, chemistry, all the hard sciences, out of the window, we glimpse a metaphor for the wanton waste and failure of those two huge political systems.
In the way these greatly more advanced species act, we see the concepts of morals and ethics, of diplomacy, of value, of all we hold most dear, thrown into question. Advancement in the sciences need not equate with advancement in behavioural attitudes. If that is so, then what is this term ‘advancement’?

And we begin to see the ecological impact implicit in this – a mirror of our own impact on the earth. The spill-off materials altered the soil, composition and environment, of the Zones in unpredictable and unimaginable ways.
It was found that the children of Stalkers were different; there was no detectable radiation in the Zones, but things were beginning to happen. Red’s own daughter changed – she was born with a hair covering, but a child despite that. In time she became less human, but not some other species. One night Red’s father appeared; he had died years before the Visit. ‘They aren’t people’, scientists declared. ‘We call them moulages’ they were the bones of the dead, and flesh material had gathered around them again. They walked, ate, breathed. What were they?
Like Red’s daughter they were not human, nor an alien species, but existed in some form, in some definition.

And the denouement was a final trek into the Zone for the fabled Golden Ball.
It granted wishes, the legends said. As Red made the perilous journey it was to be a journey into the self: they will not be any old wishes it grants, they will the deepest wishes, the deepest most unknowable of the heart’s desires. He was the last of the real Stalkers – only he now had the nous, the  knowledge, for a protracted, perilous journey through the Zone.

All along, with the terrible price he was willing to pay, he had to prove he was worth this, that he was fundamentally a ‘good’ man – even with his petty, lowdown history, with the last ultimate deed that he was prepared to allowed happen, he had to be fundamentally ‘good’, ‘honest’, one of the few, the book reveals, of the surrounding sharks, gangsters, and abusers of the community around the Zone.

The book leaves us with this.
We now realise he never intended to come back; his last act was to be one of sacrifice for the sacrifice he committed in order to gain access to the greater good.

Was that a wish to wipe away the Zones altogether, as if they had never happened? Was ignorance preferable? Or did he wish something else?

Theodore Sturgeon, in his Introduction, writes of the book’s ‘deft handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness…’. Another angle of the book is that between the ideal, the desired, and reality. The book opens with Doctor Valentine Pilman trying to deflect the interviewer from pinning him down as the originator of the Visitor-origin area: it was not so straight-forward or simple, a boy came up with the idea, but he himself got the Prize.
Throughout we see the desired life, rewards, and then the reality at odds with these. At the end we see the Golden Ball –… only then Redrick looked up at the ball. Carefully. With caution. With a sudden fear that it would turn out wrong – that it would disappoint him… it was not golden, it was more a copper colour…’.

The influences of the book can be seen in Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’, based on the Red’s character.


The witch’s jelly/colloidal gas’s effects can be seen in the the ‘mineral acid’ blood of the aliens in the film Alien . The Zones uncannily reflects Chernobyl’s own devastated zone.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky:



Ebook: The Spider and the Spies: The Secret Files of Stasi & Co, by Karen Margolis

Karen Margolis gives here first-hand testimony of her experience of the GDR, and the Stasi State.
Some years ago, after much deliberating, she decided to apply to read her Stasi files. Their filing system was hermetic, to say the least.

It was not an easy decision.

What do you hope to find, and what do you dread?
There are always surprises, unwelcome or not. The husband of a close friend, himself close, had a quiet word: You may well find my name there.
She could not say anything to her friend, his wife.
And so the game of confidences, secrets, continues, just as it did under the system.
The stomach-churning knowledge, that blights relationships, friendships, even marriages.

And what of the ‘outing’ that was endemic for a period? To whose advantage was that? Hardened agents, with years of training and experience in emotional blackmail and manipulation, could still come out of it relatively unstuck. Transferable skills. The old tricks. And they were useful in the new Germany.
Miriam, in Anna Funder’s book, Stasiland,
found herself working under an ex-Stasi officer on a radio station, using the same tactics to manipulate people, this time the staff, as he had back then.
Also, see: The Disclosures of Respect: The Public Exposure of Stasi Informers after the German Reunification, by Juan Espindola

Anna Funder’s book is based on her research for a radio programme. She advertised for interviews. She focussed particularly on the role of the Secret Police, the Stasi.
One of the names that came up, was a Herr Von Schnitzler. He was popularly known as Herr Von Schni, because that is how far the announcer got before being turned off. He ran a regular TV programme, The Black Channel. His programme followed airing of programmes from the West, and he sat there afterwards onscreen and pulled the programme to pieces. Many named him the most hated man on TV. You can imagine his hectoring, bigoted sneer.
How to deal with such a character in an interview. To Anna Funder’s credit she did it, she got in under his radar:
‘There was a serious attempt to build a socialist state, and we should examine why, at the end, that state no longer exists. It’s important.
He replied:
‘I noticed relatively early… that we would not be able to survive economically.’

This is important. She cites figures in the book, on East German production, and particularly on the biggest employers (‘There is no unemployment… you are seeking work’). The retreating Soviets had dismantled and shipped back what plant machinery they could, at the end of the War.
And it turns out the biggest employer in the whole of East Germany was… The Stasi.

I am not talking about the tens of thousands of informers: their remuneration was pitiful, but the managerial ranks: it was based on military lines, so the Colonels and upper and immediately lower ranks.
The biggest employer.
And their GDP?
They ‘produced’, in turn, nothing.

In fact, a good case can be made for them undermining the survival and productivity of the Sate.
They demoralised, victimised, ruined lives, destroyed families, lied outright, falsified… murdered. But actually produced nothing. Unless you think an atmosphere of paranoia and continual fear a product.

The people separated the Stasi from the State: they supported the State, and hated the Stasi. They were in reality one.
When the end came it was the Stasi took the brunt, and the State officials in wealthy dachas and country houses were un-reproached. That was, after all, ‘normal.’
Peter Schneider, in The Wall Jumper,
cites many examples of Easterners supporting the Eastern system, its social security, its low prices.

So when you come to the impact of this on people, it is The Stasi you think of first.
Their presence was everywhere.

Don’t let them through your door! Someone says.
– In the 1970s the response was a grim resentment, an entrenched attitude.
The 1970s were grim everywhere.
– The 1980 generation’s attitude was Ignore them. Have fun. Enjoy.
But if you didn’t let them in, they would summon you. If you didn’t go, they would pick you up at work, school, on the street.

Give them nothing.
They had meticulous details about your personal life, so much so that the notion of a private life would seem a mockery. And they had ways of manipulating you into quiescence, through shaming, robbing you of choice, free will, revealing that what you thought was basic humanity, was a construct, and so, manipulable.

Where did this information about you come from?
Ask yourself: could you bear to know? Would your life be easier, happier, not knowing? To not know is not necessarily to speculate What? and Who? but also perhaps to wonder What if not?
Peter Schneider’s character, Robert, would say that way of thinking was naive, Western. For him the State controlled every time you moved your hand to drink coffee, which coffee you drank, when you drank it, and why.

Where does the truth meet reality?
In testimony, like Karen Margolis gives here.
This is a valuable book. We still need to understand those difficult times.

Earthworms, and… things.

Posted: January 8, 2018 in John Stammers Page

According to an online source, one of the 25 words common to all seven global language groups is the word for ‘worms’.
That is, as in earthworms.
The source calls this a random word in the list. Obviously it is not. Anyone who knows their plant and soil ecology will know how essential earthworms are to maintaining a healthy soil. And we all know a healthy soil means healthy crops and vegetation.

That all 7 language groups agree on this… is not so surprising. This is list of all basics that are needed for people, cultures, civilisations. Basic knowledge.

Revere thy earthworms, o ye peoples of the earth.
‘Ye’, and ‘thy’ are also on that list.

Recently we have noticed an influence of orange bastards into our area. What are they? Are they flatworms? Reputedly they were accidentally imported into Garden Centres, and from there, via sales, to… all over the place.

What of it?

They destroy earthworms. That’s what. They wrap around them, and… do horrible things. Any attacked worm rarely survives.
They have no known enemies. And so they proliferate, and destroy your/our soil gardeners. They can organise themselves to hunt in groups.

We have not yet found any weather/natural conditions that affect them. They are even out in the freezing temperatures, hunting. Using water can help wash them off the worms they are attacking, but rain does not deter them. So, does heat? Do very dry conditions? We’ll have to wait and see for that one.

They get to know where a worm hole is, and lie in wait. Cunning, like most hunters.
And the earthworms?
Also cunning – we have noticed recently that when they retreat into their holes they drag a grass stalk etc down with them to block the entrance, because, oh yes, the orange bastards will go down and attack, too.
Such cunning. Such reasoning, too, because that cannot be any random-accident scenario: it happens too often. To work what to do, what works – that takes some measure of mentation.

So, tell me about the mental activity of earthworms. Tell me about reasoning. Tell me about creatures, without eyes, that know their environment so well they can not only traverse it to escape, to chase, but also to manipulate objects to use for their own protection.
And then tell me these creatures have no mental faculties.


Posted: January 1, 2018 in Chat
Tags: , , , ,

000_0190    Sand-bath time!

These are our pride and joy.
They were both supposed to both be hens: bantams. That’s what we asked for; they were to keep our found-hen company.
That was Pearl.
She was wandering down our road (we once had a tiny flock of twittering game birds – quail – pass through. They all must have flown down from the hills, and the game centres there, somewhere). I saw her one afternoon on a neighbours’ low shed roof, and a local cat was stalking her. Donning my superhero costume I was out, and rescued the fair maiden.
She had cat-scratches on her legs, but was otherwise ok.

Pearl was my special friend.
She would come looking for me, especially in the evening, roosting-time. She would look up at me in my chair; I’d pat the chair arm, and she would flutter up, then walk up my arm to my shoulder, shuffle in under my hair, against me. She’d flick my hair over her, like a wing, then nestle. Until she got too hot, then ‘d have to go somewhere cooler.

Originally we got her a small batch of rescue-hens for company. She would keep challenging them, though, in a ‘I was here first’ type of way; they would just pick her up by her comb, and she’d dangle helpless.
The rescue-hens we have kept have not lived too long. Their livers are usually too badly damaged through over-rich feeds of that first year of intensive farming, to produce their ‘right type’ eggs.

Pearl was extremely fragile and nervous; her egg-laying times were a nightmare. She was prone to fits at those times. Giving her medicine on one such occasion caused her to have a heart-attack. She died as we tried to make her well.


She died, and… these two are still here.
And as you can see, he is anything but a hen.

As bantams, they are only tiny: 18 inches long, and high. The cockerel was very sick when he arrived – it took months of all manner of nursing to bring him round. And full of fleas – it also took many months to fully rid him of those, and their eggs.

We had them outside in a coop, but neighbourhood cats took an interest: just snack size.
The crunch came when we looked out the window to check on them one day, and there was a hawk standing squeezed up against the bars, head through, looking in greedily, while they quivered in fright at the back.


And you wouldn’t believe how mischievous they are – the hen in particular. Is there a rule says the smaller they are the naughtier they are?100_0143

And noisy. When they want something, either food or just a bit of attention, she cries and each time it gets louder, then louder again, and so on until we respond. He just shouts – being small, it is a piercing shout that can be heard everywhere.

The more we chat with them, the more they respond in kind – the cockerel (name omitted for privacy) actually copies our syllables. Very touching, that.
Also touching is how he looks after the hen: whenever he finds food he stands back and clucks continuously until she comes over. He often misses out, if she eats it all. Whenever I bend to their level he stands before her, challenging, and warding me off.

If anyone is considering keeping some bantams – they are great fun – be warned: they are difficult to feed. It has taken us literally years to find a food they will accept and eat. And they now eat with relish, where before we were constantly worrying over them: Garvo Alfalfa Feed for Chickens.

Our pride and joy.

The Demaundes Joyous
The lightness of these, when measured against the Old English Riddles, makes them seem mere bagatelles. Quite a lot of those Old English Riddles are light and jokey also; it is just the labour of translation makes them seem less. But for ease of reading, and sheer fun, we  have these.
Did I mention translation? Yes, well, these are also translations – but not from the heavy?, stodgy? Anglo-Saxon – no, they are from the Romance of northern French.

The Demaundes Joyous

1 Who was Adam’s moder?

2 What space is from the hyest space of the se to the depest?

3 How many calves tayles behoveth to reche from the erthe to the skye?

4 Which parte of a sergeaunte love ye best toward you?

5 Which is the moost profitable beest, and that men eteth leest of?

6 Which is the broadest water and leest jeopardye to passe over?

7 What beest is it that hath her tayle between her eyen?

8 Wherefore set they upon churche steples more a cocke than a henne?

9  Why doth an ox or a cowe lye?

10 Which was first, the henne or the egge?

11 Which tyme in the yere bereth a gose moost feders?


– It is always best to have a ‘flavour’ of the kind of answer expected. So, here is the answer to Question 3:
No more but one if it be long ynough.

If you want to try and answer these… then let’s say you must do so in the curious English of their period.

The source of these Demaundes Joyous is Wynkyn de Worde, 1511.
The collection contains about fifty such riddles – I have skipped the more church-orientated, and so maybe a little obscure now eg Why come dogges so often to the churche? etc.
My source says the collection here is based partly on an early sixteenth-century French collection, Demandes joyeuses en maniere de quolibets.

There are some old crocks here: Which came first, egg or hen? But there is no Why did the chicken cross the road? Maybe that is in the other forty, not included.
Some are a little… indelicate? Some just crazy. All have the flavour of their period.


Happy Festive Season!


Special Xmas Offer: see Amazon Kindle for details

Kindle book ready and waiting.

So what’s it about?
It is about how stories, poems, texts, were structured in a certain way from early times, and through to the present day.
The structure works as a memory system. I investigate how this structure fits into the now well-known Arts of Memory.
The book also looks at how the structuring works, and was passed down through time.

I look at twenty-plus texts from ancient times, through the medieval flowering, down to the present day.
You’d be surprised what I found.

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There are distinct similarities between the Calypso episode in The Odyssey, and the Border Ballad, Thomas the Rhymer.
Both Odysseus/Ulysses and Thomas, were taken for seven/eight years; they were taken ‘out of the world’; they were taken by a woman of other-than-human nature; they were to be their lover.

The gods intervened in Odysseus/Ulysses’ case, and under threat of Zeus’ anger Calypso was forced to relinquish her captive. She did it with better grace than Odysseus/Ulysses’ own sojourn had been with her. But perhaps it was the normality, the Penelope-and-marriage bond that was being promoted – much as it was the superiority of Athens, and Athen’s justice, was being sold big in the last of The Orestia, The Libation Bearers, by Aeschylus, in later centuries.

As for Thomas, he went along gladly with her.

There is a moment in verses 16, 17 and 18 of the ballad that he maintains his own integrity.
She offered him an apple:
‘Take this for thy wages, true Thomas;
It will give thee a tongue that can never lie.’

‘My tongue is mine ain,’ true Thomas said;
‘A gudely gift you wad gie to me!
I neither dought to buy or sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.

‘I dought neither speak to prince nor peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair layde.’

And her reply?

‘Now hold your peace!’ the lady said,
‘For as I say, so it must be.’

He admits he hardly had been to able to wheedle or lie (‘dought’) to begin with; her gift changed little. What is implied here is that for such as this he had gone with her.

They reach a point on the way where three roads branch off:

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Though after it few enquires.

‘And see ye not that braid braid road,
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the road of wickedness,
Though some call it the road to heaven.

And, I have to admit, I love the salty humour here: the lily lawn road to wickedness. What a paradox! Wickedness as heavenly, that too! And the road to righteousness… the ‘narrow way’ of the church, so little sought. Satire sits with wry humour.
What of the other road, though?

‘And see you not that bonny road
That winds about the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

And there is that ‘thou’, the intimate address, crashing in after the more distanced, explanatory, discursive, and descriptive converse. The winding road along the brae – not over, not at the foot of; no straight Roman or military road; no trudging, sun or wind and rain-blasted heath.
The road winds, it does not follow logic or argument, it is not, therefore, a reasonable or rational place to where they go.
When Maddy Prior, of Steeleye Span sings this, the music becomes delicate, low key, the line becomes ‘that bonny, bonny road’.

Elfland? The Land of Faerie? Is there a difference?
We know nothing of the Elf Queen from the song, except that she has a timeless quality, can appear to whom she chooses. And that there are restrictions, differences on behaviour, perhaps etiquette, between the two realms of our life and their world. Thomas is warned not to speak whilst there.
Calyspo, similarly, has that timeless quality of the gods; she can appear forever youthful.

Thomas initially address as the Queen of Heaven. She takes pains to deny that title:

‘O no, O no, Thomas’ she said,
‘That name does not belang to me;
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.

Calypso is given a geneology, and her place in Olympus detailed and plotted.In another ballad, Tamlane, there is another abduction into that other place. Tamlane reveals he can be saved, if his lover, fair Janet, trusts in him despite the magical transformations the Queen of Fairies puts him through to regain him. In fact she faces down her father and all his knights when she is found to be pregnant with Tamlane’s child.
The Queen of Fairies, we also learn from this ballad, must pay a tribute to Hell every seven years.
The Faerie were not as automonous as the Elfen folk, it would appear.


For Odysseus/Ulysses his sojourn seems to have been a sexual enslavement.

The interlude with Circe was of a completely different nature, here Hermes stepped in with his gift of Moly, advice, foreknowledge. The relationship was based on agreement, forced maybe, but accepted.
The nature of Thomas’ relationship appears different. As the ballad begins it seems very much as though he had been wilfully negligent of his duties, almost inviting the tryst. The sexual element is down-played, as in all the Border Ballads. It could be said, however, that sexual jealousy lays at the root of many. Theirs was a tightly constricted society, both in terms of gender roles, and socially and economically. A woman’s role was very much that of home-maker, mother, griever. She was bride-wealth, cement for family truces, essential networker binding all together against a common enemy.
In this environment, a woman riding out, choosing her own mate; of a man idling, eschewing duty and obligation, this was dangerous, even more lawless than family-feuding which recognised strict family loyalties.
It could be argued that only in such a tightly controlled and constricted environment could that third road be found.

It is interesting to see Thomas’ vow of a seven-year silence from speech, whilst in Elfland. It is like an apprenticeship. What was his craft? His art? It was supposedly to be able to propheci, to put second-sight, clairvoyance, into verbal forms.

What was the apprenticeship of Odysseus/Ulysses? What was his craft? It is impossible to see the Calypso incident apart from the whole mythic pattern of the ‘wandering.’ But it is significant that straight from Calypso’s isle he (just about) got to the isle of Nausicca. It is there he told his tale for the first time. That telling could be what his apprenticeship was about.
A muse ascription hovers around these two tellings.

In the novel,  Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, we read how the people of faerie left the human world ‘three hundred years’ ago.’ Mr Norrell constantly throws this out.
The book is set about 1805 onwards, which gives us…  the early 1500s.
What is significant about this time?
If we set the date at the breaking away of the English church from Rome, Catholocism, the Reformation, we perhaps see a connection.

What is especially noticeable and surprising about Catholicism to a non-Catholic, is the emphasis on the world as cherished, made by God; of the body as also cherished. It is a religion of ceremony and celebration.
To the Protestant, the body is despised, it is to be ignored, hated, and trampled beneath the grey whispy vapour of the undefined spirit. It is a religion where the person is to cower alone and undefended by intermediaries, angels etc, before God himself.
Similarly with the world: where the Catholic church encourages all to cherish the earth, the Protestant church denigrates it.

It is ‘interesting’ that the tales of Faery stopped being made, told, when the Protestant church  became dominant.
Faery has very many elements that settle  well within Catholicism’s cherishment-programme. Its history of mariolatry resonates here also, as if with a more distant memory, of a bell rung in another realm.
But which realm resonates to which? Does Faery take from Catholicism, more than Catholicism from Faery? Is Faery a tarnished-glass reflection of elements of Catholicism? Or do certain elements come from similar roots?

Faery have a healthy sexual attitude, when compared to both churches.
Although the Catholic church cherishes the body, it is only so more believers can be born to worship God. And let us not forget the likes of the flagellants, the celibacy of the priesthood, and what it does to one’s behaviour in a world full of more explicit temptations. Who could forget that.

I suspect that that other road along the brae will be well sought-after, in the coming years of hardship.