The sinister ancestor of Halloween

What do we know of the Druids? The answer is not much. They were said to be illiterate though opinion is divided as to whether they could not write or chose not to. They were learned as well as warrior-like. They were magicians, priests, healers, seers, apothecaries of nature and they did not want their extensive knowledge to fall into the wrong hands, i.e Roman hands and so their tradition was to share that knowledge orally. There have been records of the equivalent of household accounts which does suggest they were literate. I shall never know for sure.

We do know that they lived in a world of omens and symbols and messengers. The Common Raven was deemed a messenger between worlds. They saw portents in the skies and stars, they believed in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, of night and day, of the wheel turning. And they believed that the veil between worlds was permeable on the night of Samhain, what we call Halloween.

Sadly, most of what we do know about the Druids is gleaned from the writings of their Roman oppressors. History is typically written by the victor and typically slanted. The Romans feared the Druids and their supernatural powers. They feared their practices of congregating under oak trees which they deemed sacred, drinking bull’s blood (literally), and spilling the entrails of their enemies and reading signs from the coiled intestines.

I had a conversation a while back with the renowned historical writer Tom Holland about the problems of writing, albeit fiction not non-fiction, based on historical characters. His view was that the lack of historical data was in one way liberating. You can make it up!

I read extensively and I attempted to put myself into their minds, travelling back 2000 years to the wilds of Wales, to the strongholds of the Druids in the north. I’ve done some work on a novel for young adults based on Druids. Here is an excerpt:

Photo by Linda Davies

Happy Samhain. Mind how you go…

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The inspiration of place

The inspiration of place can strike us anywhere. Wherever you are, it can inspire your creativity, whether it be in writing, painting, drawing, or in business and charitable opportunities too.

The Majlis al Jinn cave in Oman, second-largest cave on earth: a key location in King of the Djinn

I wasn’t always a writer. I started my career as an Investment Banker. Some might think that a place of numbers was not an inspiring place, but believe me, it was.

A place where huge sums of money can be made and lost in seconds makes for a very interesting study of human nature. Just how far will people go to make a lot of money – and then how much further to make a truly stupendous amount of money? The answer to that, and the desire to lift the lid on some of the practices that went on there, inspired me to write my first novel, Nest of Vipers.  I went on to write five more financial thrillers which were published around the world and translated into over thirty languages: it’s fair to say I found a lot of inspiration in the City of Money.

Then I moved with my family to Dubai. Now, I’d always wanted to write children’s books, and I’d always been interested in Djinn.  Then one day, the two things came together.

I was walking on the public beach in Umm Suqeim when I found a shell with a very intricate pattern… Sea Djinn was directly inspired by that moment on the beach.

Surfers enjoy the waves at sunset on Umm Suqeim Beach, Dubai: a key location for Sea Djinn

For Fire Djinn, I was walking in the Suffolk countryside when I came across a huge rubbish incineration facility. It was surrounded by massive fences topped with barbed wire. Why, I wondered, should rubbish warrant such robust protection? What if it were merely a cover, literally and metaphorically, for a hidden underground bunker of some sort? I transported that underground bunker to the deserts of Dubai, and gave it to my Dark Fire Djinn, Jehannem, for his own evil purposes.

For Storm Djinn, I found inspiration in the Rub al Khali, the magical Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world:

The Rub al Khali ~ the Empty Quarter: one of the driest regions in the world, virtually uninhabited, and largely unexplored: a key location in Storm Djinn

Finn smiled back. ‘Tell us about the desert, about the Empty Quarter.’

‘The Rub al Khali? It is a beautiful, heartless place where death licks at your heels with every step. Even the Bedu just skirt the flanks, rarely if ever venturing in very deep. Perhaps it is the ultimate test of survivability.’ Hareb paused and a wistful look settled in his eyes. ‘It’s a worthy foe. Most people would die before they got a few miles on foot during high summer. The temperatures reach 55 degrees centigrade, so hot the air sears your nostrils when you breathe. The dunes are taller than the Eiffel Tower. Imagine trying to claw your way up and over them in the blistering heat.’

‘Why would anyone want to?’ asked Fred.

‘Because it’s there.’ Hareb smiled enigmatically. ‘But don’t worry, our trip will be just a short escapade.’

‘Tame,’ murmured Finn to himself.

Hareb heard him and raised a sculpted eyebrow. ‘Finn, believe me, tame is what you want in the Rub al Khali.’

‘Yes, I suppose it is,’ conceded Finn, mind far away. He gazed out of the window, green eyes sharp with longing.

The dunes of the Empty Quarter stretched out for a quarter of a million square miles around them, a sea of sand, with mountainous waves towering away into the horizon; empty and desolately beautiful. Scary too. They were miles from civilisation, driving back through time it almost seemed, to another age, another millennium where there was just sand and that huge, towering sky curving away to the ends of the earth. No houses. No people. No help. Finn laughed to himself as a flicker of unease rippled through him. Why would they need help? They had ten desert experts driving them, ready to set up their tents for an overnight camp, and all the vehicles were loaded with enough food and water for a week. It was going to be tame, he chastised himself.

Finn frowned at the sky and checked his watch; four p.m. – too early to get dark, yet the light was fading. The roar of the Land Cruiser mounting a dune was matched by a louder howl; the wind. Suddenly the atmosphere in the car changed. Finn could feel the tension. He could see it in the veined hands of Shaukat, the driver, as he gripped the steering wheel, and in the hunch of his shoulders.

Fred glanced uneasily out of the window. He saw the sun. It looked odd. It was tinged green, as if burning feverishly. A strange ring of dull brown-grey ran around it, like a dark halo.

‘What’s happening?’ asked Fred, fear churning his stomach.

‘A shamal,’ answered Shaukat. ‘A sandstorm. Coming from nowhere. The sky was blue a minute ago.’

‘That’s what shamals do,’ answered Hareb. ‘They come from nowhere. We should stop.’

‘As soon as we crest this dune,’ replied Shaukat. ‘If we stop here, we’ll get stuck in the sand.’

Finn glanced at his teacher. Hareb’s voice had sounded oddly ominous. But then he was an Emirati, he had grown up in the Liwa Oasis on the edge of the Empty Quarter, so he would know better than any of them what a shamal could do.

Suddenly, Hareb flinched as though in pain. Finn watched him, concerned.

Sand wheeled through the air and pummelled the car windows as if it were trying to break in. Finn wondered how the driver could see to drive, yet the car powered on, racing upwards towards the top of some hidden dune. Finn tried to spot the other cars ahead, but there was no sign of them. Perhaps they had already crested the dune and were down on the other side.

Atop the dune, the car shuddered as a gust hit it full blast. Shaukat gasped as the car began to angle up on two wheels. Fred gulped, Georgie turned white and Hareb glanced round, face tight with apprehension.

‘Hang on!’ he shouted. ‘Brace yourselves!’

Sickeningly and seemingly in slow motion, the car toppled. It rolled one hundred and eighty degrees, suspending them in the air before tipping the whole way over and thudding down again. Finn covered his head with his hands, like air hostesses show you to do in the safety demonstrations on planes. He held his breath as the car rolled again, then again, then again, picking up speed as it went, like a demented fairground ride, only there was no getting off this ride. The screams were real, the danger was mortal and they were trapped. The wind screamed back at them. Darkness fell, devouring the light.

Storm Djinn by Linda Davies, Chapter One

So, all around us, we have inspiration.  But only if we LOOK!

Think about the synonyms for ‘look’:

see, perceive, discern, look, witness, glimpse, notice, distinguish, regard

And its antonyms:

ignore, deny, overlook, disregard, overlook, look right through, discount

Do we see, or do we disregard? Familiarity breeds contempt, or perhaps, more gently, comfortable acceptance.  To be inspired by where we are, we need to look with a questing eye.

There is a great quote from the poet William Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

WILLIAM BLAKE, Auguries of Innocence, published 1863 (written circa 1803)

The next step on from seeing is imagining.

I have another great quote for you:

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, Back to Methuselah, Act I, from Selected Plays with Prefaces, vol. 2, p. 7 (1949)

So see what is before you, then really look, imagine what is hidden, what happens next, what buildings could be built, what stories could be written, what paintings could be painted.

Look around, see what is there, be inspired by the beauty of the landscape, the vision behind the buildings. See how you can be inspired by it in your own life. Maybe it is to write, or to set up a business, or to help a friend who you hadn’t noticed before needed help.

Try it for yourself: try to see something new in your surroundings and describe it in three crisp sentences…

Good luck!

The perfect crime

An afternoon well spent in an office tailor made for intrigue

By Linda Davies

It was a dull day on the trading floor. Business was thin. The clients were like reticent fish. The atmosphere was brooding. Pasty faces tinged green by the flickering of hundreds of computer screens glowered at each other. The big swinging dicks prowled the floor, looking for sport.

I wandered through the maze of tightly packed desks to the machine for my tenth black coffee. Traders along my route entertained themselves by dissecting my outfit. Was it as good as yesterday’s? As flattering, as well tailored? I paraphrase, their language was rather more colourful.

I returned to the relative sanctuary of my desk where I sat, elbow to elbow with fellow salesmen and traders, all bored, all amusing themselves in their particular way: computer sex, the Racing Post, 0898 telephone numbers.

I retreated into day dreams. What, I wondered, was the biggest crime I could possibly commit, using the apparatus at my disposal?

My purpose was fictional. My mentality, good or bad, falls short of criminal. But trading floors can be corrupting places; huge pressures, huge money, huge scope and the glorious sense of alienation from any limitation which accompanies the “can do” ethos which permeates the City.

How easy to slip from the legal to the illegal trade, especially when the law is so patchy and the temptation so great.

Millions can be made almost invisibly, just numbers on a screen, a few telephone calls, a couple of squiggles on a piece of paper. Financial crime is the smoothest thing.

But how to commit it? I set to musing. I was alarmed by how easily the core idea came. It took just minutes.

The finance ministers and central bankers of G7 were meeting in Frankfurt. Perhaps they were going to decide to intervene in the foreign exchange markets to support or depress one of their member currencies. What if a foreign exchange trader knew in advance? What if one of the ministers tipped him off? It would be like knowing the winner of the Derby in advance.

And the stake? A top FX trader could take a position of half a billion dollars. Just a well timed word or two of inside information – “buy dollars” – and he could make 5 or 10 million in an afternoon.

And the beauty of it? No one would suspect. He takes huge positions in the markets every week. It’s his job; the perfect cover.

I sat back with a smile and lit a celebratory cigarette; I had discovered the perfect crime.

But do the perpetrators get away with it, or, as in all good parables, are they destroyed by hubris and greed?

It took me two years to write Nest of Vipers. In that time “Black Wednesday” showed the awesome power of the FX markets which destroyed a major strand of government economic policy, felled the Chancellor and abolished hopes of the medium term achievement of European Currency Union.

Black Wednesday also showed how billions of dollars can be made in days on the FX markets, legally. Imagine how much could be made illegally.

[Originally published in The Independent in their True Stories series, 9th June 1994]

Merchants of menace

The Goldman Sachs scandal, which cost three traders their jobs, may have shocked the world at large. To Linda Davies, who worked for seven years in the City, it comes as no surprise at all.

To outsiders, the Goldman Sachs sex case must seem mystifying: three foreign exchange traders, each reputed to earn $1m, fired for their imaginative suggestions as to how a secretary might secure promotion. It might seem unreal, paranoiac, manically politically correct, but the alleged harassment is all too easy to imagine. The reaction is measured, entirely appropriate. But it is also surprising.

I speak as a former insider. I worked in the City for seven years for three prominent merchant /investment banks, in corporate finance, management buyouts, venture capital and bond sales. Two years ago I left, not because I didn’t enjoy the job, but because I didn’t enjoy the environment. I think the City’s achievements – its huge contribution to GNP, for example – are impressive. But the environment and prevailing attitudes – harsh, blinkered, inhospitable, aggressive and lacking in humanity – are less so.

Photograph illustration from “A Raw Deal”, interview with Linda Davies in The Sunday Times, 4 July 1993

The firing of sexual harassers may be extremely rare but the harassment itself, in its various forms, from the outrageous to the subtle, is extremely common.

It is difficult for those outside the City to gain insight into its inner workings. Try to get anyone working there to talk to a journalist on the record about sexual harassment or any vaguely controversial topic and you will see self-censorship in action. It is also difficult for insiders to gain any perspective into their insular, all-consuming environment. If you put in 12 hours a day for all your working life in the City, objective judgement is clouded, and other bases of comparison lacking.

So how does sexual harassment manifest itself? It is different from pure prejudice, although both are on the same continuum, denoting a fundamental lack of respect. It is concentrated on trading floors in the City, although it is by no means absent from corporate finance. It starts early in the morning, around 7:30am on a trading floor, a time when you might think most people’s thoughts would be far from sex, but, then, sexual harassment, I suspect, often has little to do with sexual desire, more to do with power.

At 7:30am, as you arrive at work and walk across the catwalk of the trading floor, you will receive a stream of comments on your outfit from the innocuous, ‘You look nice,’ to speculation as to what you might look like without it. A few propositions follow. Then, at some stage during the day you might hear the popular trading floor refrain about what you might have to give to get ahead. The details of verbal sexual harassment might sound petty in isolation; many of them are. It is more the barrage, the constant background noise, the expectation of it, that make it so insidious.

Other forms of harassment are slightly more oblique. Trading floors are dotted with pornographic calendars. These calendars are, at best, off-putting. When you are talking to a trader, trying to get a price, and three inches from his screen, facing you, is a naked woman, it is slightly disconcerting. This is chiefly because of the suspicion that this is what he thinks of women, how he likes to relate to them publicly.

Then there are the deliberately loud conversations where traders discuss last night’s conquests. That most of these triumphs are probably fictional, does little to make the conversations less offensive. If, while trying to analyse the direction of markets for the day, you have to listen to a catalogue of sexual exploits, all in white-knuckle detail, again, it is, at best, distracting. The tenor of the conversation denotes an aggressive lack of respect for women.

The volume of the conversation, its very broadcasting, is intended to convey that lack of respect. I’ve seen the look of triumph on too many male traders’ faces as I’ve turned and told them to shut up to give them the benefit of the doubt.

When the Goldman case broke, a friend of mine, in the media, asked me about sexual harassment in the City. When I gave him details, he asked why I had done nothing. Very simple. During my time, there was nothing effective you could do. In theory, there were a number of options: the first is to fight back. This very quickly disintegrates into a slanging match, one which the offender – cruder, louder, better practised, more vulgar by far – will always win. The danger in fighting back directly is that you harden yourself. To immunise yourself and to repel attack, you can toughen yourself, become unfeeling and aggressive. Look around at some City women: it happens. After I had worked on a trading floor, one close friend remarked that I had changed in a not altogether welcome way. I had developed a hard, protective barrier, which, incidentally, my having left the City, is now gone. But when in the City, why should you have to neuter your softness and femininity just to defend yourself from the advances of reprobates?

In any case, a meek ‘shut up’ will just be rewarded with a smile of satisfaction as the offender realises he has ‘scored’ by provoking you.

Another reaction is to ignore it and do nothing; traditionally the wisest and only viable response. Or, you could go to a superior and complain. The result of this will be a comment to the effect of ‘if you can’t take the heat…’ as if there were something admirable or worthy in putting up with offensive behaviour, as if it were an integral, necessary part of the job, and that if you did accept it, then you would be doing your job better. Clearly, the latter supposition is nonsense. But sexual harassment is an integral part of the job.

Why is this? The answer is, I suspect, money and power. Money is the prime motivation of those who work in the City, many of whom make sums running into millions for their employers and themselves. That much money confers power, and a feeling of potency, upon those who make it. The link between money and power and sex is strong. The terminology of the City accolade, ‘big swinging dick’, is no coincidence. The atmosphere in the City is aggressively masculine. The level of excitement, particularly on a trading floor, is high. The testosterone level is high. Volatile markets produce excitable people. Add to these feelings of power and potency, a sense of invulnerability, an enjoyment of risk, and it is easy to see the genesis of a desire for sex, or at least its verbal proxy. It is just another form of droit de seigneur.

The other component is competition. The motivation here is not sexual, it is to do with rivalry and dominance. Because of the sums of money at stake, the competition, especially on trading floors, is intense. The encroachment of women into what was traditionally a male monopoly has exposed them to that competition. If a man loses a large sum of money, very often, more than his professional competence is threatened. His job is closely tied up with his identity. The link between money and power and sex becomes inverted when some male traders lose money; they feel impotent. One quick remedy is to force their sexual persona on to female colleagues, by propositioning them, by making offensive sexual references, by any of the means described above.

The motivations can be both conscious and unconscious. The City, international force that it is, is parochial, self-obsessed, blinkered, lacking in perspective. It is all too easy to accept the status quo as immutable. New male recruits pick up the prevailing culture and soon find themselves engaging in some of the minor, almost unconscious forms of harassment; the jokey propositioning of female colleagues assumed to be weaker, easier targets, and secretaries. So what can be done about sexual harassment? Perhaps the banks could admit that it exists and confront it. Goldman Sachs, as part of its selection process, will interview candidates up to 25 times. Many City banks have similarly rigorous procedures. What they do not test is the ability of female applicants to tolerate and accommodate sexual harassment. But, given its incidence, perhaps they should. As well as asking whether candidates are willing to work 18-hour days and sacrifice their private lives (which they don’t ask, but should), perhaps they could try asking whether women are willing and able to put up with a constant background of sexual harassment. No, they don’t ask it. It is tacit. It goes with the job, a perk for the boys, penance for the girls. We take City jobs, but they don’t warn us what we’re buying into. It is a case of caveat emptor, the buyer takes the risk; but then so much of the City is, these days.

Part of the problem in dealing with sexual harassment has been that, in the past, there has been so little desire to do anything about it. Those who made the rules, who established the culture, were almost without exception, men. They had no direct, immediate interest in changing the status quo.

The prevailing ethos has been that those who make enough money can get away with whatever they like in terms of the way they treat their women colleagues, as long as they do not become violent. But, finally, the times might be changing. The Goldman case was encouraging. After receiving much support from her female peers in a meeting convened in the ladies’ loos, the woman concerned reported her case to a committee which had been specially set up to deal with such complaints. This committee took action, and sent out a message, loud and clear, to Goldman’s employees and to the rest of the City. In one easy stroke, three big swinging dicks were felled.

Originally published 1 May 1994

Lady Killers

Long a genre dominated by men, thrillers are increasingly being written by – and about – women. Novelist Linda Davies reports on four such page-turners.

Many people become squeamish when women conjure evil, as if it might rub off on them. Yet more and more, women are writing thrillers that feature female protagonists: characters who inhabit worlds darkened by serial murder, sadomasochism, and child killing. These writers seek not just to convey violence, but to understand it, to enter the psyche of evil.

I remember my surprise at a review of my first book, Nest of Vipers, that described my heroine as a monster and likened the novel to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho in its amorality. My heroine was driven by vengeful passion to take up where the judicial system failed, stepping out of the bedroom, the boardroom even, and onto the bloody streets. Would this have been more palatable in a male character, created by a male writer? An underlying morality justifies her actions, but her lack of conventionality, her readiness to use violence, makes her uncomfortable to some.

Women writing suspense novels is nothing new, of course – think P.D. James and Patricia Highsmith, to name just two – but many recent thrillers seem to speak more directly to a female readership. Women tend to empathise more easily with the evolving protagonists created by female authors, while men raised on more macho thrillers may find these characters strange and unsettling. Herewith, a look at four engaging new books: a sequel to one of last year‘s finest debuts and three works from first time novelists.

Carol O’Connell‘s The Man Who Cast Two Shadows, the follow up to her novel Mallory’s Oracle, once again features the formidable NYPD detective Kathy Mallory. In this beautifully written book, shot through with pain and longing, Mallory investigates the murder of a young woman in Central Park – chillingly the woman is a ringer for Mallory herself – and winds up uncovering police corruption. Mallory is a seductive character who can out-men the men, while still retaining an air of vulnerability. She is both mysterious and as real as a fist in the face, and O’Connell’s insights into her complex personality make this a book to savour.

Central to Laura Reese‘s Topping from Below is M., a sickly mesmerizing antihero who draws a woman into a sadomasochistic relationship. The woman, Franny, dies, bound and mutilated; yet no one is charged with the crime. Franny’s sister, Nora, resolves to prove M.’s guilt, and finds herself following in her sister’s footsteps along a path of sexual discovery. A sense of the characters’ decay lingers in the plot, which is sparked by a dangerous current of eroticism.

Sarah Lovett‘s compelling Dangerous Attachments reveals a world of predators and charred flesh, of ravaged minds and those who try to understand them. The main character, Sylvia Strange, is a strong, at times brittle, psychologist who works with inmates in New Mexico prisons. Among the numerous characters is a slick politician and his son, Lucas, who is in prison for murder and fears that his father is trying to have him killed. Lucas, who is reviewed by Strange, becomes so obsessed with her that he begins to stalk her, psychologically as well as physically. Though the terror comes from perhaps too many angles, Dangerous Attachments has a febrile, edgy quality, evoking at times an elemental fear.

In Liz Rigby’s richly evocative Total Eclipse, an astronomer falls in love with, and tries to defend, a beautiful widow who has been charged with a double murder. The novel, which features some memorable courtroom scenes, deals with themes of perception and distortion; it strongly suggests that in order to see clearly, women – and men – need to adapt, even change, their perspectives. And the conclusion is spectacular.

Rigby’s novel – like each of these books – contains plenty of action, but equally important is the hidden violence in the brain, the traumas that make these characters dangerous, unpredictable, vulnerable. These authors’ fresh approaches heighten the suspense and draw you in as you identify and empathise with the characters. Women move easily in the world of feelings, and they are turning it to their advantage in fiction.

Originally published in Harper’s Bazaar, July 1995

Empowering girls. It’s not what you look like, it’s what you do!

Forging an independent identity is one of the biggest challenges many of our teens will face. It can be tough figuring out who you are, especially if the idealised identity on sale in our cultural bazaars requires a level of apparent perfection that is dispiriting rather than inspiring and relates to a static idea of how you should look, rather than what you can do with your body and mind.

This affects boys and girls, but it is girls who suffer more of a dearth of healthy role models. If we look at music videos, which have a dominant effect in creating an imagery and theme tune of youth, girls are shown either as accessories or else as powerful by virtue of the pulchritude of face and the amount of skin they expose rather than via the power of their minds and bodies.

How can we give our girls better role models and why is it so important that we do?

A strong sense of identity, forged by the individual, not forced upon them by birth, upbringing or circumstance, or adopted by default from social media norms, is vital to our teens’ happiness and well-being. This philosophy does away with concepts of either victimhood or entitlement, both of which are damaging and hindering in forging a happy, successful and useful life. But identity is created and owned by taking action, by developing hobbies and skills, by inhabiting our physical bodies, strengthening and using them rather than primping and preening them.

Katniss Everdeen: an exceptional role model (in every sense)

But where are the inspirations for our girls in literature and film? Katniss Everdeen has done our teens a huge favour by being a strong, powerful role model. She is not anyone’s accessory, draped provocatively in music videos or taking vicarious power from a stronger male. She is a skilled and brave fighter. A leader of a revolution. But she’s still an exception.

I feel very strongly about empowerment for girls, about their health, physical and mental, and how to promote it.

This started with my own journey. A skinny girl with round glasses and long brown plaits, I was called Skinny Linny, Twiggy and Praying Mantis. I wasn’t cool, I wasn’t adorable-looking, and I didn’t fit in.

Skinny Linny was not a good identity. Rebelling against the pigeonhole my peers were trying to cram me into, I decided to forge my own identity, one that would give me strength; I would be Linda, the fighter. I had a powerful ally, my father.

Glyn Davies had fought in the Second World War. He believed that you needed to raise children able to look after themselves, armed with the knowledge and physical abilities to get themselves out of trouble, and to fight if absolutely necessary. So he taught my three older brothers, and he taught me. He made no allowances for the fact that I was female and I shall always thank him for that.

When I was eight he gave me my first longbow. I would shoot for hours till my hands were callused, but I loved the focus and the sense of achievement when I hit the bull’s eye, what archers call the ‘Gold.’

My own history explains my long-term fascination with warrior girls. The seeds for Longbow Girl were sown decades before Katniss stalked our screens, thanks to my unconventional ‘equalitist’ father.

Now I have a twelve year old daughter I feel even more strongly about the need for powerful, positive role models for girls. I always make the heroines in my adult thrillers and now in my books for Young Adults, into fighters. Merry Owen, in Longbow Girl, is a supreme archer and has to become a fighter on many levels. That is her identity and it saves her life as well as the lives and lands of those she loves.

Artemis, the ancient Greek form of Diana, kills Actaeon with her bow

Merry is physically marred from an accident with her longbow, but she is beautiful nonetheless because of her strength, her bearing, her attitude.

I particularly love archery, the skill I gave to Merry, because of the calmness, strength and training needed to wield a bow effectively.

The bow is a simple weapon, about as low tech as weapons get. But is rich in tradition and history. It is associated with power, nature, myth and legend whether it is Diana the Huntress, or the Amazonian warrior queens.

But any sporting activity will work. I love the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign. And the truth of it is, the more you do, the more you push yourself, the more you can do in all areas of your life.

My message to girls is this: Forget the dopamine hit from an Instagram like of your bikini’d body. Go for the endorphins surge of a fast run, a weights session, a game of tennis, a session of archery. Pick up your bows and aim for the gold.

And writers and film makers, let’s give our girls heroines worthy of the name.

First published in 2016

What is an El Niño event and why should we care?

The last mega Niño in 1997 had powerful and catastrophic effects on global weather. It caused 22,000 deaths world-wide and cost $33 billion in flood and drought-related damage.

What is El Niño?

Giant tsunami wave approaching shore El Nino

The Christ child they called it, the fishermen of Northern Peru, who noticed around Christmas-time in certain years, a warm counter current flowing from the north, extending far south, lasting for months. We now know it can increase the water temperature by between four and ten degrees Centigrade. This warming of the ocean devastated the fishermen’s livelihood because it drove away the anchovies, and other fish, in search of the colder waters in which they thrive, but it pleased the farmers, some of the time, because it rained in the deserts, allowed them to grow crops in normally barren land. But El Niño’s didn’t always benefit them.

The Moche civilisation was destroyed in the late 6th century when, following thirty years of drought, a prolonged El Niño brought year after year of torrential rains that washed away their crops and buildings and eventually eroded their entire civilisation. They tried everything they could to placate the weather Gods. Hundreds of fractured skeletons were found pertaining to that period. Human sacrifices thrown desperately from cliffs.

El Niño has a lot of blood on his hands. We have attributed China’s Great Famine of 1877-8 to an El Niño event. Between nine and thirteen million people perished and seventy million were severely affected. It is a global phenomenon. At its peak, the warm pool of water can extend as far as one third of the way around the globe and cover an area one and a half times the size of the United States. It can bring rain where there is normally drought, and drought where there is normally rain.

How often does it happen?

On average every four years, a strong one every fifteen years. What we call a ‘mega-Niño’, like the one that destroyed the Moche, occurs every 400 years. But it’s not regular. A decade can go by with no Niño event, and then you could have four in as many years. Then there’s also something called La Niña, the pendulum swing that sometimes occurs after a Niño event, which brings cooler waters, and its own brand of devastation. La Niña in 1988 caused the northward displacement of the north pacific jet stream, which in turn displaced storm tracks into Canada, effectively stealing the storms that bring the USA much of its rainfall. By July of that year, 43% of contiguous USA was suffering from severe or extreme drought. It was like the years of the Great Dust Bowl. Grain growers lost more than 19 billion dollars and the world’s grain reserves were halved.’

What effect is global warming having on El Niño events?

El Niño events are getting more ferocious. In the twentieth century, El Niño’s have been stronger than for the past 130,000 years. The last Mega-Niño occurred in 1997. It caused 22,000 deaths world-wide and cost $33 billion in flood and drought-related damage. No-one predicted it with any decent lead-time, nor did they predict how long it would stay, or how severe the consequences would be.

Who feels it first?

Peruvian fishermen on the north coast where Peru borders Ecuador are some of the first people to physically feel a Niño event. The seas warm, I’ve swum in them myself. They are so intoxicatingly warm, where they are normally quite cool and fresh, that all the local children pile in for hours and have to be dragged out at meal times. For the children, it’s very simple; the Nino has arrived, and they make the most of it before the rains come, as they will in a matter of weeks, a few months at the most.

What actually happens to the seas when an El Niño comes?

In a typical year, in spring, you get strong winds blowing towards the equator, and these, plus something called the Coriolis effect – the tendency of winds and currents to veer to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern normally – join forces to push surface waters away from the coast. To fill their place, cold water rises in what’s called an upwelling, bringing a whole host of nutrients to the surface which attract fish. Big ones and little ones. But, during El Niño events, there is a relaxation of the winds, and you get things called Kelvin waves bringing warm water eastwards from the Western Pacific. That causes a downwelling of warm water to depths of three hundred feet or more, stopping the nutrients rising to the surface. During the 1997-1998 El Niño, tens of thousands of seals and sea lions starved to death as a result.

There was also widespread flooding of low lying coastal homes because when water warms it expands and the sea level rises. And the Kelvin waves can raise sea levels on the Peruvian Ecuadorian coast by as much as ten inches.

Ark Storm eco-terrorism thriller by Linda Davies author of Nest of Vipers

Discover more about Linda’s eco-thriller inspired by catastrophic weather events like El Niño: Ark Storm

Into The Fire financial spy thriller by Linda Davies set in Peru

Discover more about Linda’s spy thriller inspired by her own time living in Peru: Into The Fire

Ark Storm letter to The Mail on Sunday

As I write this, California is suffering a life changing drought. Here’s a letter I wrote which The Mail on Sunday published last week.

While it may amuse us that Cameron Diaz is not flushing the loo as regularly as she used to in order to conserve water in drought-stricken California, those wishing for rain need to be aware of the other end of the extreme weather spectrum. In researching my novel Ark Storm, I found that once every two hundred years a catastrophic storm hits California, and they are currently due one.

Last time it rained for 45 days, bankrupting the state. And storms of this magnitude are projected to become more frequent and more intense as a result of global warming. We can only hope that the rain, when it does come, will be the result of a small Ark Storm, not the terrifying ARk Storm 1000 which is due.

Linda Davies, Suffolk
Cameron Diaz – environmental activist

Scientist fears CIA is attempting to weaponise the weather

What if you could control the weather? It’s a question that has exercised mankind for millennia. Now evidence has emerged that the US Intelligence community is funding climate research in what a leading climate scientist fears is a step towards controlling and weaponizing weather.

Professor Alan Robock, a climate scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has revealed in a recent conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San José how three years ago he received a telephone call from two men who claimed to be working for the CIA. Apparently they said: “We are working for the CIA and would like to know if some other country was controlling our climate would we be able to detect it?”

Robock said he was scared by the call, revealing that he thought that the CIA operatives were also wondering, “If we wanted to control someone else’s climate could they detect it?”

Further evidence of the CIA’s interest in climate emerged last week when the National Academy of Sciences published a report on tacking climate change. One volume of the report concentrated on ways to manipulate clouds or the earth’s surface to reflect more sunlight out to space and the other targeted means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The CIA was one of the major funders of the report which led Professor Robock to wonder what exactly is the Agency’s interest?

The CIA did not respond when asked to comment.

The Agency set up the Center for Climate Change and National Security in 2009. It was closed down in 2012 but evidently the CIA’s interest in climate continues. It raises the question – was this office truly closed down or has it just gone underground? Has it become just one more deniable op?

When it did operate, the Center drew heavy criticism from Republicans who regarded it as a distraction from the clearer and more present dangers posed by terrorism. Which begs the question, what if weather manipulation could be used as an act of terrorism?

That is the premise of my novel Ark Storm, in which I describe how a real life scientific innovation that can make it rain is used to stage a terrorist attack on the West Coast of the United States of America.

I stumbled on the science behind Ark Storm when I was living in Dubai. It was the summer of 2010. I read that dramatically heavy rains were falling in the deserts of neighbouring El Ain in the United Arab Emirates causing unprecedented floods. In that region, the historical average number of rainfall events for June through September is two. The National Weather Service forecast zero rain events over that period. But it did rain. On fifty two separate occasions. And it hailed and galed and thundered. It made the international news.

Rainstorms cause flooding in the UAE, 2010

When I investigated further, I heard rumours of masts in the desert, of scientists and computer models. It sounded like something out of a James Bond movie. And then I read an article which explained what had been going on.

It was the work of scientists. Technicians were mounting ionizers on masts, producing electrons which attached to dust particles in the atmosphere. These dust particles rose by convection till they reached the right height for cloud formation where they attracted water molecules floating in the air which then started to condense around them. Billions of droplets of rain formed and fell…

So far, so Bondian. Then I heard about the latest twist where the ionizers are sent up on drones… Which made me think of terrorists…

This technology is a game changer, capable of bringing rain to areas of drought, to making once marginal farmland richly productive. All that’s needed is a minimum humidity level of thirty per cent, the ionizers correctly programmed to emit just the right quantity of short-living ions over the appropriate time period and circulation pattern to charge the natural aerosol particles and masts or drones to get the ionizers into the correct positions.

It is worth tens of billions of dollars; it is something that people would kill for, nations would go to war for. Is it any wonder that intelligence agencies such as the CIA are interested…

The technology works by tapping into what is known as the pipelines of water in the sky. The largest of these pipelines are known as atmospheric rivers. We have only been aware of the existence of these rivers for around five or six years due to advances in satellite imaging technology. Most people looking up on a clear day would never think that just a few miles above their heads a huge ribbon of moist air hundreds of kilometers wide and over two thousand long could be coursing through the atmosphere at speeds in excess of 12.5 meters a second.

Small atmospheric river storms hit around the world every year. But every so often, a monster emerges. In California they are preparing for the next one. A team of 117 scientists, engineers, public policy and insurance experts under the umbrella of the Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project worked for two years to create the hypothetical scenario of what such a storm could be and what damage it would wreak across the state of California. In an ARk Storm 1000 scenario, this river, described by the head of the ARk Storm Unit as “like Forty Mississippis,” races from the tropics toward the west coast of the US, then hits, and keeps on hitting. The Storm Door opens and fails to close. This is a storm so intense it has been described as “like Hurricane Katrina pushed through a keyhole.”

The scenario goes like this; winds of up to 125 km’s per hour, rain falling in feet rather than inches, nine million homes flooded, parts of LA under twenty foot of water, one and a half million residents evacuated, four weeks of solid rain, an area three hundred miles long and twenty miles wide under water, innumerable mud slides, multiple casualties, a trillion dollars worth of damage. A meteorological nightmare and a catastrophe for the state of California.

Last time something like this hit was 1861 to 1862. Witnesses describe a flying wall of water that swept people and livestock to their deaths. California’s Central Valley was turned into an inland sea for months. Such a storm would be more devastating than the Shake Out Earthquake and its probability of hitting is about the same. Both are expected imminently in geological terms. ARk Storm 1000 is arguably overdue.

I thought what if the ionization technology were to fall into the wrong hands… What if somebody decided to use it to ramp up an ordinary atmospheric river storm into the ARk Storm 1000? That is fiction. The technology is fact.

It is the realisation of an ancient fantasy. We have mapped the surface territories of the earth, we are valiantly progressing in our attempts to plumb the deep, we are making inroads into space. We have seeded clouds with some local, limited success. But despite efforts across the millennia, mankind has been unable to control the weather. Until now. As a result of the ionization technology, we can in a limited but very powerful and dramatic way, manipulate the weather.

Now man with all his hubris in the best traditions of a Greek tragedy can attempt to play God. And who will pay the price? The rich and powerful in some morality tale, or the poor and the weak in the all-too-familiar play of Realpolitik…?

Greed and ‘Women Beware Women’

By Linda Davies

Programme note for the 2010 revival of Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton at the National Theatre, London, directed by Marianne Elliott

“Three great forces rule the world; stupidity fear and greed.” Einstein could have been describing the murky urges underlying Middleton’s play nearly four hundred years ago, and equally the forces that still appear to rule the world today.

In Women Beware Women, greed was a contagion. Now it’s an epidemic, as most recently and dramatically demonstrated by the bankers and their monstrous credit crunch, aided and abetted by the greed and stupidity of those who purported to govern and regulate them. But why is greed so timeless? Perhaps Gordon Gekko, in the movie Wall Street, best expresses the evolutionary imperative of greed:

Gekko sanctifies greed.

In Women Beware Women, greed is stronger than love.

At the outset, Bianca is passionately, seemingly selflessly in love with Leantio. For him, she has “forsook friends, fortunes…” yet she declares: “There is nothing that can be wanting to her that does enjoy all her desires… I am as rich as virtue can be poor.” Presaging Thoreau:

That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.

Henry David Thoreau

Yet Leantio, neither believing nor trusting his good fortune in ensnaring his ‘choice treasure’, his ‘jewel’, knows that “temptation is a devil will not stick to fasten upon a saint.” Like many a businessman away on a business trip, he worries: “What assurance of restraint then?” He is reassured by his mother’s presence. “Old mothers know the world… when sons lock chests are good to look to keys.”

He still worries about the corrupting influence of greed and cautions his mother: “I pray you do not teach her to rebel… to rise with other women in commotion against their husbands for six gowns a year.”

Of course, if you are a WAG, hooked up to a championship footballer, then six gowns or six ‘must-have’ handbags are part of the trade; endless handbags and fashions for her, but possibly endless liaisons for him, with the girl of his best friend, or just any attractive woman lured into his orbit.

Even if you didn’t go into it with the idea of such a trade, there is the ever-present risk of the corrupting power of wealth and position.

The Duke uses both to seduce Bianca. He offers her “wealth, honour… She that is fortunate in a Duke’s favour lights on a tree that bears all women’s wishes… why weep away whole years in wants… come, play the wise wench and provide for ever.” He believes his wealth and position will prevail, and why wouldn’t he? They did, just as Tiger Woods’ did. They gave him access and justification:

I convinced myself that normal rules did not apply. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them.

Tiger Woods

But why the compulsion to acquire? Why acquire another ‘must-have’ handbag, or another conquest, or another company, a jet, and then a larger jet? Shopping produces for many consumers a ‘high’. We are goaded by the ancient caveman promptings where acquisition meant survival. We are provisioning in the aisles of Tesco’s or the boutiques of Bond Street. We acquire, we survive. And we spread our seed as far and wide as we can to ensure propagation of the species. The old brain, the hypothalamus, tweaks our strings and we dance.

But why should greed still be so keenly felt in an era of plenty amongst those who surely have enough?

“It’s not a question of enough,” explains Gekko. “It’s a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses.”

It’s a kind of sport, as beloved now by the ambitious Livia who orchestrates Bianca’s seduction. In plotting with her the equally manipulative Guardiano observes: “T’would prove too much worth in wealth and favour to those should work [The Duke’s] peace.” Livia is delighted to play the role of a female Pandarus.

Why? Because it is fun, as well as potentially rewarding in terms of wealth and power. Bianca’s mother-in-law, thinking she is just commenting on Livia’s skill at chess, observes: “You are cunning at the game.”

Livia responds: “It will be found so… she that can place her man well.”

How like some corporate or political players, scheming and manipulating behind the scenes. Livia succeeds because of Bianca’s own susceptibility to greed.

And of course, today as in Middleton’s play, you can also attempt to draw upon the majesty of the law to “hide your acts from sin-piercing eyes.” In Women Beware Women, Hippolito and Isabella attempt to use the sanctity of her impending marriage to the Ward to hide their own love. Today you can try, but possibly fail, as did John Terry, to take out an injunction to prevent the press from revealing your sins.

But the most majestic means of veiling acts from scrutiny was devised by the bankers and facilitated by their political masters, too busy enjoying the lavish tax takes to look too closely at exactly what the bankers were doing.

Bernie Madoff, Nick Leeson, Allen Sandford and the long list of financial fraudsters were able to profit because of the pervasiveness of greed. Investors’ heads were turned by attractive and seemingly relentless year on year returns. Some were duped and relied on advisers whose own scrutiny was dulled by the prospect of fees. Bank chairmen were too busy thrilling to their enormous profits to scrutinise the fraudsters’ trading too closely. Had they never heard the expression ‘too good to be true’?

Politicians too looked the other way. The City of London in its finest hour was contributing 27% of the UK’s tax take. So the politicians were disinclined to interfere. Why mess with the Golden Goose? Untrammeled, the bankers played on.

It wasn’t just the fraudsters who benefited. The ‘ordinary bankers’ did too. Securitisation was their tool of choice. What better way to veil “your acts from sin-piercing eyes,” than to shunt your excess liabilities off balance sheet through some clever derivative instrument. Intoxicated from decades of gambling with what’s known in the trade as Opium – OPM, Other People’s Money – it was so easy for them to succumb to greed, to make that trade and not worry about the risk when it was other people’s money they were risking.

Add to that the hubris inherent in their belief that they had conquered the future. Myron Scholes and his Black Scholes model meant the uber-bankers thought they knew the future. They could quantify it, risk assess it, price in the risk premium. They could hedge themselves. And where the marble and glass-palace players led, so the High Street followed.

Personal borrowing rocketed to fund that ‘must-have’ bag, or the extension to the house, or the bigger house acquired on a 110% mortgage.

The bankers thought they had conquered risk, captured the future, could deal with whatever vagaries it threw at them.

Trading with OPM and further distancing themselves from the repercussions via securitisation made it Other People’s Problem. A world without consequences removed the brake of self-interest from greed. But then came the Black Swan event – high-impact, hard to predict, rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations. The global financial system teetered. Governments across the globe propped it up to the tune of £4,473 billion of taxpayers’ money, according to the Bank of England.

And so in Women Beware Women, the unexpected brings the players down; the wrong person drinks from the poisoned goblet. The master-manipulator is outmanoeuvred and loses all.

The unexpected happens, chaos intervenes, and like the bodies littering Middleton’s stage, the corpses of the financial victims litter the world stage.

Nothing’s changed.

The stage just got bigger.