No, I didn’t know either. At least I knew nothing of it until I looked it up.

Zemiology is the study of social harms, from the Greek zemia, or harm. It’s a relatively new academic discipline, which grew out of critical criminology and it seeks to generate real world action in pursuit of justice.

That’s where I come in, as justice is the theme of Oracle. I found out more when I had a chat with Sharon Hartles, of the Open University’s  Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative (HER​C).  She is also a member of the British Society of Criminology (BSC) and a researcher and postgraduate with the University of Strathclyde. A published critical criminologist, Sharon is currently conducting research on Primodos.

As I understand it, too often the crimes of the powerful are difficult to address under our current law and legal system, referred to as ‘black letter law’.  Actions which have a harmful impact on  others in society, like ignoring safety regulations ( or watering them down ) in pursuit of profit, or despoiling the planet, are not ‘crimes’ in law ( though they may breach certain regulations ). As an example, even after the appalling events at Grenfell Tower there are still no prosecutions and, indeed, it is becoming difficult to find a ‘crime’ with which to prosecute anyone, individually or as representing an institution or corporation. Yet facts were known, the wishes of the residents were ignored and the likelihood of fire foreseen.

Thus, events like Grenfell become referred to as a ‘tragedy’ or a ‘tragic accident’, yet they were foreseeable and avoidable and these events and others like them will continue to occur until the law adapts to make punishment of those who enable such events both possible and direct. Zemiology presupposes that isn’t likely to happen, as the powerful have co-opted the law and the legal system to protect their power and interests. An idea not unfamiliar to readers of Plague.

Sharon was a mine of information about this new discipline. I think it’s going to have to feature somewhere in Oracle, probably among the young idealists protesting against environmental damage who Cassie encounters at Delphi. Perhaps the charismatic protest leader is a zemiologist? We shall see.

I await the return of the final edit of Oracle, which has to be fully revised and returned to Claret Press by 31st January, complete with drawn image. I sketched the Palace of Westminster for the pages showing the start of each ‘daily’ section in Plague and I have undertaken to do something similar for Oracle, as that too is organised over a small number of days. Something I’ll be thinking about over the Christmas period.

Good news from elsewhere, however, as I learn that the recording of the audiobook of Plague has begun. I will write separately about this as it nears completion, suffice to say for now that Essential Audiobooks of New York are producing the audio book which is being read by actress, voice coach and associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Alison Bomber.  Alison has just moved to the Czech Republic, but is already working on the recording.  More on this later.

For now, may I wish everyone reading this a happy and peaceful Christmastide, where ever and with whomever, you are managing to keep it. Here’s hoping for a much better 2021.


Myths and Legends

Oracle, the next book in the series following the adventures of Cassandra Fortune, is set in Delphi, Greece near the Temple of Apollo. When revising it recently  I revisited some old favourites, the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece.

Like many children of my era, I absorbed details about Zeus and Hera, Athena and Apollo fairly early in life, along with the heroes, Heracles, Jason (with fleece) and all those at Troy ( thank you, Roger Lancelyn Green and, later, Ray Harryhausen ). I was briefly confused by the Roman equivalents, Venus usurping Aphrodite in my mind (mainly because I didn’t understand what both really signified i.e. sex, and Venus was an easier name ). Yet Jupiter and Juno remained in distinct second place to the Olympians, as being too pinkly domestic and toga-clad. Gods were supposed to be wild and strange. Narnia cemented my early classical training, with its fauns and dryads, satyrs and Bacchus, and it was the Greek version which remained forever dominant.

I subsequently went on to Odin and Thor, Osiris and Anubis and the Irish heroes ( courtesy of Rosemary Sutcliff ) like Cuchulain and Finn MacCool.  Other characters from Celtic folklore, Beddgelert of Wales,  the Scottish Kelpie and St Piran of Cornwall supplemented but didn’t detract from my own existing pantheon, which was further nourished by Mary Renault. I never lost the love of them and they led to Homer, Hesiod, Beowolf, the Icelandic Sagas and the Mabinogion.

Yet there are older gods of Greece – Gaia, Uranus and the Titans, twelve male and twelve female, including Chronos, Rhea and Oceanus. Votive offerings to Gaia, the primordial mother, have been found in Delphi, in the Corycian Cave above the Temple to Apollo from the Neolithic period (about 12,000 years ago). Gaia and her daughter, Themis, ruled at Delphi and there was a chapel to her there, though it was long ago absorbed into the larger Temple complex. As Nico, the museum employee in the novel, explains, in legend, the god Apollo arrived at Delphi to wrestle with the Python, the giant snake belonging to Gaia, and won; so he became the ruler of Delphi.  It is thought that this represents a change of dominant culture as migrants, whom we now know as the Hellenes, came into Greece from the north. They eventually settled all of Greece and their gods were the Olympians. 

Nonetheless the older gods continued to exist along side the new, as did their off-spring (unless they were thrown into the pit of Tartarus). These included some groups, or sets, of minor deities, like the Fates and the Furies. The latter trio, called the Erinye, were three women, often, especially in more modern times, portrayed with snakes for hair and flashing eyes, their hands dripping blood. The image, right, is of Clytemnestra attempting to wake the slumbering Furies to chase down Orestes in the Orestaia on a vase dating c.350 BCE. Delphi, it was believed, was the centre of the world and it is to the Temple of Apollo there that Orestes flees, calling upon the god to save him from the Furies. 

I don’t know if the books which I read are still read today, I hope so, even as new games and films bring the ancient heroes and deities to life for another generation. This Pantheon is firmly anchored within western sensibilities.  So much so that we even replicate the old jokes in new ways ( see image left ). 

Oracle will be published in Spring 2021.

Art and life – again

Life is imitating art again. This time in regard to the, aptly named, ‘Oracle’. The second book in the series which ‘Plague’ began is set in Delphi, Greece and takes justice as its theme, in the way that the theme of ‘Plague’ is power. So it explores the idea of justice and how it is achieved, including concepts like vengeance, retribution, legal codes and punishment and law enforcement.

This is particularly relevant in societies where the law, as a means of achieving justice for everyone, is becoming out of reach for many, thereby diluting justice for all. Either because of cost  (and the vast reduction in legal aid available to those who don’t have the money to seek justice) or because of right wing populist, media-amplified  ideas that people belonging to certain groups do not deserve access to justice. Asylum seekers, for example, or refugees. Demonising the ‘other’ is a standard populist tactic, so are attacks on the concept of human rights, which are, by their nature, applicable to all human beings, regardless.

If this makes ‘Oracle’ sound dull, I would like to reassure you that it’s only as dull as ‘Plague’ was and a quick glance at reader reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, or its critical reception, shows that ‘Plague’ was pretty exciting.

I was prompted towards justice as a theme by recent events, particularly the Supreme Court preventing the executive from shutting down Parliament, the UK’s sovereign body.  The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests at the treatment by the police of specific groups of people, those who happen not to be white, in the States and here also played a part. More recently the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the scramble to replace her with someone partisan towards a specific political position also highlighted the link between justice and politics.

In ‘Oracle’ a senior politician doesn’t trust that the officers being sent to investigate murky goings on are truly impartial, because of the politicisation of the police.  In Greece there are close historic ties between the police and the military, which ruled the country as a junta until 1974.  I began writing ‘Oracle’ in early 2019, however, some time before the legal trial of a whole political party, Golden Dawn.

On 7 October 2020, Athens Appeals Court ruled that Golden Dawn operated as a criminal organization, systematically attacking migrants and leftists. The court also announced verdicts for sixty-eight defendants including the party’s political leadership. Nikolaos Michaloliakos and six other prominent members and former MPs, charged with running a criminal organization, were found guilty. Verdicts of murder, attempted murder, and violent attacks on immigrants and left-wing political opponents were also delivered. Golden Dawn held 17 seats in the Hellenic Parliament only five years ago. An independent investigation by the Council of Europe found disturbing links between Golden Dawn and the police.

The politicisation of elements of the justice system which already feature in ‘Oracle’ have a real life corollary. Just as elements of the governing system in ‘Plague’, like the awarding of large sums of taxpayers’ money to companies without any track record, or assets, avoiding due diligence and accountability, have a similar echo in real life. It’s encouraging and dis-spiriting at the same time.

If you’re interested in reading about the coincidences between the plot of Plague and real life try            Plague – Stranger than Fiction               The Plague Story Continues             Stranger than Fiction II