30 December, 2006

Sisters of Aphrodite: Radio 3 Sunday Feature

The Christmas Eve Sunday Feature on Radio 3 (available on Listen Again) was an interesting 45-minute documentary on female deities and their worshippers in prehistory. I found the overtly feminist tone rather irritating, and in places I got confused over dates, but there were plenty of noteworthy nuggets of information and ideas embedded in the narrative.

The presenter, historian Bettany Hughes, started with the prehistoric female figurines such as the ‘Venus’ of Willendorf. These figurines turn up over a wide area of Europe and Asia from France to Siberia and are dated at anything up to 25,000 years ago. I didn’t get a clear date for when they went out of use, but had the impression from the programme that the date range might run up to about 4,000 BC. The figurines are conventionally interpreted as representing a Mother Earth Goddess, hence the title ‘Venus’ applied to many of them by the excavators who discovered them. Their wide distribution has been interpreted to mean that the Goddess cult was universal, or at least very widespread. The programme suggested that the figurines might represent real women, rather than a universal goddess. Which is an interesting hypothesis, although I’m not sure how one would go about testing it – how could we tell whether an artefact represents a real woman, an idealised woman, an earthly incarnation or representative of a deity (e.g. a priestess) or a goddess, or indeed a combination of all of them? (This is touched on in an interesting web article, which is well worth reading - though I wonder if his contention that Stone Age women resembled Raquel Welch in the film One Million Years BC may contain an element of wishful thinking).

One suggestion made in the programme was that the preponderance of female figurines (apparently something like 95% of Stone Age figurines for which the sex can be identified are female and only 5% male) indicates that women held high social status. One contributor suggested that this might be connected with the development of farming and a settled lifestyle. The argument suggested that home-based activities such as raising crops in a garden, tending livestock in a yard, making pottery, weaving textiles, etc can be readily done by women, and that when people became sedentary and such activities became at least as important as hunting, women’s power and social status increased. There’s some logic to this, and I think I remember some anthropology survey that claimed that women have higher status in agrarian societies (e.g. peasant farmers where the staple crop is rice) than in hunting communities (e.g. the Inuit). (But I can’t find the reference, so don’t quote me on that, I may have mis-remembered it). Unfortunately, I don’t see how that hypothesis squares with the age of the ‘Venus’ of Willendorf, which is dated to around 24,000 years ago. As farming is supposed to have started around 10,000 BC in the Near East and taken several thousand years to spread across Europe, this would suggest to me that the ‘Venus’of Willendorf was carved in a hunter-gatherer society, in which case the postulated connection with the development of farming rather falls apart.

Another suggestion was that some of the female figurines represent a sort of childbirth manual. This suggestion was, I think, based on statuettes found on Cyprus near the sanctuary of Aphrodite at Paphos. The contributor argued that there are no temples associated with Goddess worship at the right date, and the figurines bear no insignia suggesting they represent a deity. But his excavations showed a high level of infant mortality and a number of women buried with neonates who had presumably died in or shortly after childbirth, which he interpreted as indicating that infant mortality was a problem of great importance to the society at the time. The figurines are shown seated with their knees apart, a recommended position for childbirth, which may indicate they were used to demonstrate a way to bear a child that might maximise the survival chances of both mother and baby. Though I don’t know how one could tell the difference between this and a good-luck charm or an invocation to a goddess who was thought to protect women in labour?

The programme then went on to look at female figures in art and artefact from the Bronze Age up to the Classical period in Greece, arguing that at least some of them represent women worshippers rather than goddesses – e.g. the lady carrying a tray of cakes. (Did you know that cake-baking moulds turn up in temple deposits from classical Greece? Now that gives a whole new meaning to How to be a Domestic Goddess, doesn’t it?) One of the titles quoted for a goddess of this approximate period (I got lost in the dates here, so I don’t know if it’s Bronze Age or Classical or both) was ‘Queen of Heaven’, a title that could be readily applied to numerous goddesses from numerous religions (ox-eyed Hera comes to mind, as does Frigg from Norse mythology). The parallel with the Virgin Mary was drawn, and there is a Christian church dedicated to Mary built on the site of the sanctuary of Aphrodite, suggesting that whoever built the church either saw a connection between two powerful female figures or thought it was worthwhile trying to make one. Apparently Mary’s title in some remote Cypriot villages is ‘The Most Blessed Aphrodite’, making the connection explicit. And a monastery high in the Troodos mountains owns an embroidered girdle which is reputed to have belonged to the Virgin Mary and is reputed to have the power to help infertile couples conceive – as evidenced by the many women who come to the monastery to wear the girdle and pray, and then write grateful letters to the monks when they later become new parents. Homer tells a story of Aphrodite lending her embroidered magic girdle to Hera. In that case the girdle had the power to make men and gods fall hopelessly in love with the wearer, which is not quite the same as aiding conception (though obviously connected) – perhaps Aphrodite’s girdle was a little risque for the Virgin Mary and was adapted to a new role, or perhaps it always had several attributes and different aspects dominated in different circumstances.

It doesn’t seem to me very surprising that religions/mythologies/cults (call them what you will) should pick up ideas and rituals from their environment, building on and adapting what has gone before. Pope Gregory the Great advised Abbott Mellitus to do just that when trying to convert the pagan English to Christianity, to make the transition to a new religion more acceptable by doing it in small steps (the letter is in Bede, Book I, Chapter XXX). Perhaps the practice has a long history. What do you think?

26 December, 2006

The White Mare, by Jules Watson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Orion, 2005, ISBN 0-75286-537-4

The White Mare is set in what is now Scotland in AD 79-81. All the main characters are fictional. The historical figures of Agricola, the Roman governor of Britannia at the time, and Calgacus, leader of a confederation of tribes in Caledonia*, are important secondary characters, and there is a walk-on part for the Roman historian Tacitus, who was Agricola’s son-in-law and whose history is the only documentary record of the events.

Rhiann is a princess and priestess of the Epidii tribe in what is now Argyll in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Her tribe, in common with the others in Alba* (the name used for Scotland throughout the novel), reckons royal descent through the female line instead of the male line, and Rhiann is the only woman of childbearing age in the Epidii royal family. She therefore has an inescapable duty to marry and bear a son who will be the next king of the Epidii – if she does not, some other clan of the Epidii, or perhaps even another tribe, will take over the Epidii by force. When Eremon, an exiled Irish prince, arrives in Epidii territory with his warband of loyal followers, the Epidii druid and chieftains demand that Rhiann marry Eremon as a political alliance. Recognising her duty, Rhiann agrees, but a traumatic experience has left her emotionally crippled and terrified of marriage. Meanwhile, in the south of Alba, the Roman governor Agricola is leading a military invasion that will threaten not only the Epidii but all the tribes of Alba. Rhiann and Eremon have to protect their own tribal territory against the Roman threat, persuade the other tribes to unite into a wider alliance, overcome a variety of enemies nearer to home, and somehow come to understand each other well enough to forge a lasting relationship out of their marriage of convenience.

I first heard of The White Mare when Marg of Reading Adventures reviewed it. I’m delighted to see this under-utilised period of history being explored in historical fiction. The only historical account is the biography of Agricola written by the Roman historian Tacitus (full-text translation available here). Tacitus was writing only a few years after the events, and as he was married to Agricola’s daughter he may well have had access to first-hand information from Agricola himself. This closeness to the events being described lends veracity to Tacitus’ account, though it should be remembered that he (like all historians) will have selected from the material available to him and presented that which he thought most relevant to his narrative. There are no sources telling the Caledonian side of the story. As a result, there are enormous gaps in our knowledge of the social structure, values, culture, religion, language and history of first-century tribal Scotland, leaving tremendous scope for the novelist’s imagination. The author will have had to make up most of Rhiann and Eremon’s world and the people in it, and a helpful Historical Note sets out the skeleton of historical facts and the reasoning behind some of the extrapolations (part of the Historical Note is posted on the author’s web site under ‘History’). I am not an expert on Iron Age Scotland by any means, but I found the novel plausible. The female royal line is controversial (in this period, most things are). Bede, writing in Northumbria in AD 731, says that the Picts* reckoned royal descent through the mother in his day, though he tells the story in the context of an origin myth and modern scholars have suggested that it may be a contemporary tradition rather than a fact. I know of no incontrovertible evidence either way, so you can take your choice. The religion of Iron Age Scotland is unknown, and the author has postulated two competing religions, a male-dominated religion with druids similar to those recorded in Gaul and further south in Britain, and a female-dominated religion based on worship of an earth-mother Goddess and rituals centred around stone circles. It has previously occurred to me to wonder whether there might be a connection between the tradition of female royal descent and worship of a powerful female deity, so I have no problem with seeing both in the novel. Again, there is no definite evidence either way.

The White Mare recreates the lost world of Iron Age Scotland in rich detail, with attention paid to politics, religion, legal and social structures, a working economy, and details of domestic life including food, drink, clothing, jewellery and medicine. It recognises that there were different points of view regarding the coming of the Romans, as the Votadini tribe of south-east Scotland are presented as co-operating with Agricola, which is entirely consistent with the role documented for the tribe in later Roman Britain. I have my doubts about the credibility of a Roman-style palace being built in the middle of the hill-fort at Traprain Law in AD 80 as described in the novel (the remains of its foundations and tiled roof would surely have been visible in archaeological excavations, and there is no mention of such remains in a reasonably recent article), but I don’t suppose the entire area of the fort has been meticulously excavated, so who’s to say? The central characters, Rhiann and Eremon, are firmly anti-Roman and so the novel gives more emphasis and sympathy to this point of view, but the Roman side of the story is presented as well and the Roman characters are not demonised. Agricola is a character in his own right, with his own desires and motivations, and a rather timid Roman engineer is occasionally used to observe and comment on Caledonian society.

The main characters are well rounded, with a mix of good and bad qualities. Both Rhiann and Eremon are complex and intelligent with a strong sense of duty, and both have previous painful experiences to overcome. Caitlin and Conaire are in some senses sunnier versions of the two leads, with less responsibility on their shoulders and consequently more opportunity to be fun and outgoing. The main plot driver is the relationship between Rhiann and Eremon, and the overall tone is one of epic drama, sometimes veering into melodrama. Occasional verbal sparring between Rhiann and Eremon, Caitlin’s artless chatter and laddish humour among the warriors provide a few glimpses of humour to lighten the tone.

The secondary characters, such as Gelert the crafty druid, cruel king Maelchon, scheming Samana and noble Calgacus, are vividly drawn, though their clearly defined roles in the plot limit the aspects that can be portrayed and they may appear somewhat one-dimensional. Rhiann is a strong character without being a warrior princess, and although the Goddess cult is feminist the society as a whole isn’t presented as a feminist utopia.

The novel is very long (605 pages) and rather slow, in part because the detailed world-building takes up a lot of room, and in part because Rhiann’s emotional trauma seems to be repeated rather more than I thought was necessary. It starts to pick up around page 250 or so, but I still found it a slow read and would have preferred a faster pace and fewer reminders of Rhiann’s personal problems. This may be because I found it hard to credit that Rhiann’s aunt, a fellow priestess in the Goddess cult, didn’t recognise the reason for Rhiann’s aversion to marriage until well over halfway through the novel, whereas it seemed obvious to me within a few pages.

Most of the plot elements are not resolved at the end of the novel. You have to read the sequel, The Dawn Stag (even longer), to find out what happens in the end, so be prepared to embark on a 1200+ page odyssey.

There is a strong spiritual and religious theme in The White Mare, particularly for the Goddess cult (the rival druid religion gets less emphasis). Occasionally this spiritual theme spills over into events that appear to be overtly magical. For example, Samana casts a spell on Eremon, and Rhiann uses some sort of magic to bewitch a Roman sentry and gain access to a Roman fort. As I’ve said elsewhere, I am not a great fan of fantasy elements in historical fiction, and for me this tended to weaken the story.

I found it odd that none of the characters ever compared their situation and the choices facing them with the recent experiences of the tribes further south in Britain. The White Mare is set only a generation or so later than Boudica’s revolt against Rome in AD 61 (review of a novel telling Boudica's story here), and Cartimandua’s reign as a pro-Roman client queen. Yet no-one in the novel ever tries to draw lessons from the decisions made by Boudica and Cartimandua and the other tribal leaders further south. Geographical isolation isn’t the explanation, as there is reference to a marriage alliance with a prince of the Trinovantes, one of the tribes that joined Boudica’s revolt, so clearly the tribes in the novel have contact with their contemporaries in the south of Britain. Cartimandua’s territory is likely to have bordered Votadinian territory so she and Samana might even have been neighbours. Maybe the tribes of Caledonia don’t consider the other British tribes worthy of attention (though they are evidently considered worthy of marriage alliances with royal females). Maybe the events were so traumatic they were wiped from popular memory. However, it also extends to the Roman side, as Agricola fought military campaigns in Britain shortly after Boudica's defeat, yet he never refers to her revolt and its aftermath as a dire warning of the consequences of resisting Rome. I find this apparent disconnect from recent history rather puzzling.

A richly detailed recreation of Iron Age Scotland at the time of the first-century Roman invasion.

*The nomenclature of the inhabitants of what is now modern Scotland is confusing in the extreme. Tacitus refers to Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde as Caledonia. In later centuries, Latin writers from the late Roman Empire (fourth century AD or so), and Bede, also writing in Latin, refer to the inhabitants of north-east Scotland (roughly, north of the Forth and east of the main spine of the Highland mountains) as Picts. Irish writers writing in Irish at the same sort of time as Bede refer to the same area as Alba and its inhabitants as Albans. No source preserves the name that the inhabitants of the area used for themselves in their own language, whatever it was. It is entirely possible that these different names refer to different tribes who displaced each other; for what it’s worth, I’m more inclined to think that the simplest explanation is that they are all different names for the same people, with ‘Picts’ and ‘Pictland’ replacing ‘Caledonia’ in later Latin sources (possibly by a similar process to that which replaced the names of medieval duchies with the names of the larger kingdoms that absorbed them, e.g. the areas that were Gascony and Aquitaine in the 13th century are now referred to as parts of France), and ‘Albans’ and ‘Alba’ being the equivalent terms in Irish Gaelic.

15 December, 2006

December recipe: Alternative Christmas Pudding

This is my contribution to Marg and Kailana’s 2006 Advent Blog Tour. If you’re following the Tour, welcome!

Traditional Christmas Pudding can be a bit on the heavy side after the traditional huge Christmas turkey-with-everything-you-can-possibly-think-of dinner. Besides, with mince pies and Christmas fruit cake there’s rather a lot of dried fruit around, and it is possible to have too much of a good thing. So when it’s my turn to do the Christmas catering, I often make this chocolate sponge pudding instead of the usual plum pudding. It’s sweet and rich, the sauce is festively alcoholic, and it’s light enough to be a pleasure even after a big meal.

It’s known in the family as Stockbroker’s Pudding because it’s a modified version of a recipe I found in the Financial Times, back in the distant days when my job involved reading it (yes, that austere and august financial publication runs a cookery column on Saturdays, or at least it did in the early 90s. Not many people know that). If you’re feeling flush, you can substitute the cooking sherry in the sauce with brandy or whisky, in which case I suppose it should be called Merchant Banker’s Pudding :-)

Serves 8.

Stockbroker’s Pudding

Chocolate pudding:
1 oz (approx 25 g) cocoa
4 oz (approx 125 g) butter
4 oz (approx 125 g) granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp (1 x 5 ml spoon) vanilla essence
6 oz (approx 160 g) self-raising flour
1 Tablespoon (approx 15 ml) milk to mix

1 wine glass cooking sherry (or brandy or whisky if you prefer)
4 Tablespoons (4 x 15 ml spoons) clear honey
0.5 pint (approx 280 ml) milk
0.25 pint (approx 140 ml) double cream (I think this is called heavy cream in the US?)
juice of 2 lemons
1 heaped Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) cornflour (heaped means piled as high as it will go)

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in the eggs and vanilla essence.
Mix the cocoa into a paste with 1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) of hot water. Beat into the eggs/sugar/butter mixture.
Fold in the flour and add enough milk to give a soft dropping consistency (i.e., the mixture is soft enough that a spoonful will just drop off the spoon).
Put in a greased pudding basin, cover, and steam for 1.5 hours approximately, until set and risen. You can make the pudding to this stage the day before, if you like, then all you have to do on Christmas Day itself is heat up the sponge and make the sauce as follows:

Mix the cornflour to a paste with a little cold milk.
Put the rest of the milk in a small saucepan. Stir in the cornflour paste and heat the mixture gently until it comes to the boil, stirring all the time. When it boils, the sauce will thicken.
Reduce the heat, then stir in the honey, followed by the lemon juice and alcohol.
Beat in the cream and remove from the heat.
Turn the chocolate sponge out onto a plate, pour the sauce over it, and serve.

Happy Christmas, one and all!

10 December, 2006

The Albatross of Mixed Metaphor......

...is alive and well and roaming the hallowed halls of the BBC. A trailer for a Radio 4 documentary on global warming warned, “....we are on the precipice of a runaway train.”

Most listeners no doubt just laughed or said “Whisky Tango Foxtrot?!” or “What do they pay the editors for?”. Mitch Benn of the satirical sketch team on The Now Show turned it into a comic song. Here’s an extract:

I’m caught between the Devil and a hard place
Between the fire and the deep blue sea
Between a rock and the frying pan
What a terrible place to be

I kicked two birds with one bucket
Bit more bullets than I could chew
I burnt my bridges at both ends
That’s a pretty dumb thing to do

And now I’ve got a snowball’s chance in a handcart
I hope you’ll let me explain
I’m standing on the precipice
Of a runaway train

Now I’m hoist by my own line and sinker
Since I opened up a whole bag of cats
I put my nose out of joint on the grindstone
I don’t know why I did that

I took a bull by the china shop
I won’t do that again
Now I’m standing on the precipice
Of a runaway train

You can hear the whole thing on Listen Again, either by listening directly or by downloading the MP3 file to play on your iPod. The song starts 24 minutes into the 8 December edition. (The rest of the show is also good for a laugh, if you like satire on British/world news and politics). It’ll be available until Friday 15 December, when it will be replaced by the next edition.

By the way, the discussion on historical fantasy in the post below is still running. I just thought I’d better post this now so you all had a chance to go and listen before the programme expires!

08 December, 2006

Historical fantasy

For me, historical fantasy is to novels what bacon and egg ice cream is to food; however much I like the components individually, the combination leaves me a little baffled. Reading Temeraire made me think about why this might be, so I’ll try to explain it here.

Better start with some definitions. For the purposes of this post, historical fantasy means a story that features supernatural powers and/or creatures unknown to natural history alongside real historical events or in a setting that claims to be a real historical time and place. I’ll illustrate how I think it differs from historical fiction, alternate history and fantasy by means of made-up examples:

  • Historical fiction - real events and setting, no supernatural forces. E.g. William of Normandy defeats Harold of England in battle in 1066, by shooting Harold in the eye with an arrow.

  • Historical fantasy - real events and setting, with supernatural forces playing a key role. E.g. William of Normandy defeats Harold of England in battle in 1066, by casting a spell on Harold or smiting him with a fire-breathing dragon.

  • Fantasy - invented events and setting, with supernatural forces playing a key role. E.g. Gwilym of Northland defeats Rorhald of Cornerland in battle in the Year of the Stunned Spider, by casting a spell on Rorhald or smiting him with a fire-breathing dragon.

  • Invented history - invented events and setting, no supernatural forces. E.g. Gwilym of Northland defeats Rorhald of Cornerland in battle in the Year of the Stunned Spider, by shooting Rorhald in the eye with an arrow.

  • Alternate history - real events and setting with one or more major alterations from recorded history, no supernatural forces. E.g. William of Normandy loses to Harold of England in battle in 1066, or William defeats Harold by using gunpowder.

Of course these all merge into one another, since books follow a continuous distribution, not a series of discrete groups. And it should go without saying that this is in no way intended as a hierarchy, and that I don’t consider any category to be superior to any other. There are some that I enjoy more than others, but a personal taste is not a judgement.

Supernatural, in this context, means an event or action for which no natural explanation is plausible. E.g. a human who can breathe underwater without special equipment, animals that talk in human languages, people who turn into animals and vice versa, inanimate objects that act or speak of their own volition, people who rise from the dead, and spells that work (whether they slaughter armies, move mountains or do the washing-up). It doesn’t include belief, technology or random coincidence. E.g. a warrior who believes he is possessed by a god, kills the enemy leader against heavy odds, turns the tide of battle and is hailed by the other characters as a god (that’s belief); painting a dog with phosphorus so the other characters think it’s a ghost (that’s technology); cursing someone who then falls dead of a stroke (that could be coincidence); dreaming that a colleague is in trouble, going to their rescue and arriving in the nick of time (that could be coincidence).

I enjoy historical fiction, fantasy and invented history (I’d put Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lions of Al-Rassan in this latter category). But I find I have more trouble with both historical fantasy and alternate history. Why should that be?

I think it’s because I see a disconnect between the components of the story. A real historical time, place or event exists independently of the world of the novel. I usually know a little bit about the historical background before I start, and that may well be what drew me to the novel in the first place. Even if I know little or nothing about the history, I probably have some idea about the geography, climate, plants, animals and natural resources. As I read, I’m combining what I already know with what the author puts in the novel and building up a combined picture. I’m sure all readers do this to some extent, which is why authors don’t feel obliged to explain that Paris is the capital of France or that alcohol makes people drunk. Some background knowledge has to be assumed. In the case of historical fantasy or alternate history, as soon as William loses at Hastings or wins by using magic, there’s a direct conflict between what I already know and what the novel is telling me and the picture in my head falls apart. I have to consciously keep track of which version I’m supposed to believe, and this distracts me from the story.

I don’t have this problem with fantasy or invented history because the world in the novel has no independent existence that can conflict with the novel. I take Tolkien’s word for it that wizards can light fires with magic words or that dwarves fight with battle-axes, and as long as the author doesn’t tell me something different in the same novel I don’t have a problem. Al-Rassan might strike me as remarkably like medieval Spain and Rodrigo Belmonte as remarkably like El Cid, but they are not claiming to be medieval Spain or El Cid, so I don’t have a problem when Rodrigo Belmonte’s fate diverges from El Cid’s.

So I get around my difficulty with historical fantasy or alternate history by treating it as fantasy or invented history, taking place in a parallel world that happens to share some features with the real world. Provided I remember to do it, this avoids a collision between two incompatible mental images and leaves me free to enjoy the story for itself - if it’s compelling enough.

Does anyone else do this? I think I’m in a very small minority on this one. What do you think of historical fantasy?

05 December, 2006

Miscellany - Advent Blog Tour, and air travel

Remember how much fun it was opening the little doors on your Advent Calendar as a kid? Marg and Kailana are organising a virtual advent calendar this Christmas.

Here’s how it works (text from Marg's blog post):

Each day anyone who wants to participate could take turns sharing a little treat with our friends here in blogland. For example it could be something about a holiday tradition (and it could be whatever holiday you celebrate if you don't do Christmas), or a recipe, or a picture of a hot guy, or a favourite Christmas memory, movie, song...anything you like. We will create a list of links so that as people express interest we will add them to the list, and then we will post a link directing visitors to the appropriate blog. To give people a chance to get organised, we will start on Sunday 10 December. If there are more people than there are days that's fine too.....the more the merrier! So do you want to see a little treat each day?

More details, including the list of participants, available from Marg and Kailana. I’ve signed up for 16 Dec. Be sure to join the tour when it starts on 10 Dec, and if you feel like joining in you could always ask Marg and Kailana if there’s room for any more.

Recently I had reason to take a flight from London City Airport, which is an airport I haven’t used before. It’s a small airport tucked into the London Docklands financial district, and does mostly short-haul flights to European cities for the business travel market. Having a fairly short runway and steep approaches to clear the tall buildings, it doesn’t take big airliners and mostly flies 50-100-seater planes like the BAe 146.

Years ago a much older colleague was telling me that he used to do a lot of business travel way back in the 50s and 60s when air travel was still a big deal and most of the pilots were ex-military. He said you could always spot which pilots were ex-Navy, because even when they had a mile of runway to play with they still took off and landed as they'd learnt to do it on aircraft carriers. Plunge down like a dive bomber, bounce a couple of times, slam on all the brakes, bring plane to quivering halt in 50 yards, then realise the terminal building is still rather a long way off and sheepishly taxi the remaining mile while the passengers and cabin crew are gingerly picking themselves up and wondering if they're still in one piece. I am sure he was exaggerating :-) But London City would suit a Navy pilot.

You taxi out sedately enough, more or less like a normal airport. Then you turn onto the runway, the pilot steps on the gas, the engines roar into their best "When I grow up I want to be a Concorde" impression, the plane shoots off down the tarmac like a scalded cat, and about five feet later the pilot hauls the stick back and you've got a bird's-eye view of the Thames Barrier and the Millennium Dome (am I the only person who thinks it resembles a stunned spider?) while the plane pirouettes on one wing tip and heads off down river. The weather was clear over England, so I got to see the Thames estuary with the Essex marshes fading off into the distance, then we flew along the Kent coast and crossed the Channel at Dover. I couldn't see the castle, but I could see the harbour breakwaters and the line of the white cliffs, and Cap Gris Nez near Boulogne on the other side jutting out just like it looks on a map. I've walked the French coast path between Cap Blanc Nez (which really is white) and Cap Gris Nez (which really is grey), so it was rather nice to see them from the air.

Much more fun than flying from a huge hub like Heathrow :-)