My third novel…

has just been published on Kindle. It’s a magical mystery tour of Spain in the early 2000s, Moorish Spain between 550 and 1000AD with side trips along The Silk road and around and across America.

To give you a taste of this fascinating tale, I’m going to publish an excerpt.

And as we know is possible, Zyriab is at once standing outside Son Portals staring down at the Mediterranean and walking the streets of twelfth century Córdoba. All time is all time. 

The street beneath his feet is churned with mud and horse manure, the smell of sewage is over-powering. The people who pass him scurry by, their faces averted, their shoulders hunched with oppression. Their robes are dirty and ragged, when he catches their eyes fleetingly, they are full of fear and suspicion. The shade cloths hanging over the souk are torn and stained.

This is not my Córdoba. My Córdoba was swept and washed daily, there were street lamps on every corner hundreds of years before they appeared in the lands of the infidel. The people were bright of eye and eager as they went by on their daily business. Passers-by greeted each other with courtesy, with salaam or a shalom or a go with God. These people live in fear.

Zyriab has landed as he desired in the Córdoba of the Almohad dynasty, sometime during the reign of Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (Yaqub I). This stern movement of  rigidly orthodox Muslims ­of Berber stock, was not too far removed in their beliefs from the Islamists of the late twentieth century. They were first invited to Andalucia by those Taifas* fighting a losing battle against the Christians. But when they saw the wealth and beauty of the land, they decided to stay and consolidate their rule: a brutal one.

When they first entered the city, they gave the Jewish and Christian citizens a choice: convert or ‘be freed of their toilsome existences.’ Under al-Mansur, they relented, and Jews were allowed to stay but forced to wear long black robes ­ – the dress worn by mourning Muslims. 

Zyriab walked the streets of Almohad Córdoba in despair and deep contemplation, remembering the city which was described by an anonymous author in the mid 13th Century as: ‘…the highest of the high, the furthest of the far…the home of the good and godly, the homeland of wisdom, its beginning and its end the home of right reasoning, the garden of the fruits of ideas…’ 

After some hours of aimless wandering, he realised where he had been heading, without even knowing. To the school of music that he had created on a street not far from the Grand Mesquita in Calle Albucasis. He turned a corner, and there it was. Neglected and dilapidated. The walls crumbling, the doors torn from their hinges. He walked towards this building that had once been the repository of his dreams, where he and his children had taught and been taught, from where the sound of voices in harmony, the lyrical cascading notes of the oud, the ratatatat of drums had burst out onto the street. All that was left was a faded sign, hanging by a nail on the front wall, swinging in the breeze. He could read it only because he knew what it said: 

Zyriab School of Music, Poetry and Harmony.

He picked his way across the shattered tiles and walked inside. A nest of swallows hung from a remaining archway. There was the cold stone smell of abandonment. 

All furniture, all rugs, all instruments, all signs that this was a place of learning yearning, gone. He kept walking towards the courtyard at the back of the building. And then he heard a sound. Faint, at first, but melodic. He quickened his pace and moved towards it.

As he walked out onto the courtyard, now mostly rubble, weeds pushing up through the cracks in the tiled surface where once orange and lemon trees grew, he saw him. An old man swathed in a brown cloak, a turban of the same colour on his head, softly playing a flute. Zyriab walked silently up behind this man and stood listening, for some minutes. The melody he was playing he recognised from his Córdoba, a fragment of an afternoon nawba, one that he had composed*. At least something remains.

“As-salaam‘alaykum Sayyid” he said quietly when the man had finished. He was not prepared for what happened next. The old man’s eyes widened with fear, he threw himself on the ground crawled towards Zyriab, groping for his feet

“Oh Sheikh, forgive me, I will not do it again. I promise that I will destroy this instrument of the devil. I was aroused by memories of the building. Forgive me, forgive me! I am but a worm in the presence of your greatness, by Allah!” 

Zyriab reached down and took the old man’s hands. Looking into his eyes he saw that he was blind. He pulled him gently to his feet.

“Brother, please stand. You have nothing to fear from me. I recognised the afternoon nawba you were playing. Please, stand.”

A look of relief came over the old man as he stared sightlessly ahead. He stood, then regained his position  leaning against the wall, slipping the little wooden flute into the sleeve of his cloak. His breathing slowed, and the colour flowed back this face.

“Tell me Brother, why this fear of music? Do you know that this building was, once, a school  of music?”

“Yes, and as a young man I was a pupil here. But the school has long gone, closed by Abu Yaqub Yusuf on his arrival in Córdoba.” He look quizzically at Zyriab. “Do you not know of these matters? Are you a stranger? You speak with the accent of Córdoba”

“Indeed I am from here, but I have been far away for a number of years. You must tell me what has come to pass in my absence.”

The old man drew his cloak around his shoulders and sat up in preparation for the telling of a tale.

“Ayah, where do I start? And before I do my brother, how can I be sure you are not one of them?”

“I swear by Allah that I have no connection with Abu Yaqub Yusuf or his compatriots.” The old man nodded, closed his eyes and lifted them to the heavens.

“O doves that haunt the arak and bin trees have pity! Do not double my woes by your lamentation!”

Zyriab was astonished. He had quoted Ibn Arabi! Zyriab added the second line:

“Have pity! Do not reveal by wailing and weeping, my hidden desires and my secret sorrows.” The old man sighed deeply.

“Now I will tell you. These godless God-fearers arrived in our city some 15 years past, and brought with them horror and hatred. Our Jewish brethren were threatened with death unless they foreswore their religion, as were the Nazarenes in our midst. Even the Almoravids before them had not been so harsh.”

“And this harshness extends to a hatred of music?”

“Sadly, yes. Whoever says that all music is prohibited, let him also claim that the songs of the birds are prohibited. Nowhere in the Q’uran, nor in the Hadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him,  can be found any passage prohibiting music.”

Zyriab looked down at the old man, now staring sightlessly towards the sky. He needed to find out more about this regime. Perhaps the old man could help him. 

“Tell me, how you did you come to be playing a nawba, alone and in secret, in the old school of music?”

“It has been a  long journey O Sheikh. I was born into a family of merchants in cloth. My family were regular travellers along the Silk Road in search of silk, spices, rugs and jade. Until I was twenty, I could not go with them on their travels. And so I studied Islam and music. While doing so I found Al-Ghazali and other Sufis and recognised the path I wished to take. And when I came to this school in its last days and learnt that its founder, Zyriab, had been a Sufi, I knew I had chosen well.”

“Indeed. The way of the Sufi is the true way of Islam. Tell me, what is your family?”

“I am of the Beni Hammúd, a distant branch of the family who ruled Córdoba not long past. I am Al-Kassim Hammúd.  My ancestor of the same name took  the name  Al-mámún. His rule was, by all  accounts, more moderate than today.”

An impressive family indeed thought Zyriab, and yes, more tolerant by far than these Almohads.  

“Al-Kassim, I must tell you my name. I am Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Nafi’. And now, please, tell me of your journeys along the Silk Road and how you came to lose your sight.”

“Abu l-Hasan, the two stories are intertwined like the jasmine on the orange tree. I will tell you my story.

Meeting Milligan


A younger debonair Milligan

The frail figure clutching a blanket around him emerged from the house blinking, and crept towards me. A pink face surmounted by sparse grey hair looked like a deflated balloon. He held something delicately in his right hand, cupping it.

I’d driven across the Tramuntuna mountain range in north-eastern Majorca, from Fornalutx, where I lived, to Pollensa, where Spike Milligan and his wife Sheila often summered. He had described C’an Tatoli, where I was now standing by the pool, as a  “paradise of silence…..”

Not the night before. There had been one of those storms that sweeps in from the north, across the Mediterranean, knocking over pine trees and ripping terracotta tiles from rooves. The wind that accompanies such a storm shares the name of the mountain range, tramuntana. As I  point out later, all the winds that  shriek across the island are named.

So violent had been the wind and the storm that before I left that morning, the friend who had brokered  this interview with Spike, Pauline Scudamore, his biographer, rang to tell me to expect that he might not be up to seeing me. The storm had disturbed his sleep and he was extremely fragile. He was, after all,  71 years old and had suffered, since the second world war, from manic depression.

Pauline met me when I arrived and asked me to wait by the pool, which I did, for quite some time, with increasing trepidation. If he decided he was too frail, I would have to drive back across the mountains, without my story and worse, without having met my hero. The irony of meeting the creator of the quintessentially English characters, Eccles, Moriarty, Min and Henry, Bluebottle  and Major Bloodnok on an island in the Mediterranean had not been lost on me.


I’d first heard The Goon Show at the age of eleven,  in the old Double Bay Sailing Club, a ramshackle boatshed on Double Bay beach. After the Sunday race, we’d huddle around the steam radio, still in our wet sailing clothes and laugh maniacally at the surreal idiocy of the Goon Show. I still love it, but then, in the anodyne age of Menzies, it was a whack across the cerebellum, it seemed, somehow, subversive to be listening. Later, I bracketed Milligan with Charlie Parker as the two who broke the mould after that war that wreaked so much havoc on the world and on Terence Alan Patrick Seán Milligan KBE.

He held out the cupped right hand and said something to me in so soft a voice that I had to lean forward and ask him to repeat it. “I saved it” he said and opened his hand. In it was a beetle, dripping wet but still  moving. “It was in the pool and would have drowned, but I scooped it up and saved it”. He crept over to the garden, laid it gently in a flower plot, and turned back to me. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

We went on to talk for three hours, three of the most exhilarating hours of my life. I’d been warned, by Pauline, not to ask him  about the Goon Show – but you could no sooner meet Milligan and not talk about the Goon Show than meet Nixon and not talk about Watergate or  John Cleese and not mention Fawlty Towers. Talk about the environment, she said, and indeed, that was how we started – but we ended with the Goons.

During that three hours he transformed from a fragile deflated old man of  71 who looked like the next puff of wind might blow him over to a vigorous artist in full flight, in full control of his comic genius. It was as if he had been pumped, with a bicycle pump, full of life again.

I think it was partly because I was Australian. “My Mum lives in Woy Woy you know.” I did. He called it Woy –  a town twinned with Woy, and God’s Waiting Room. Yet he did much for Woy Woy, and they responded by naming a bridge that spans Woy Woy Bay Inlet the Spike Milligan Bridge – a decision that was the subject of a fight amongst the councillors which would have made Spike gleeful.


We went on to speak of over-population, the spread of mankind over the earth as ‘the human plague’, who was greener, Jesus or Buddha (Spike opted for Buddha), humour and, finally, I broached the topic of the Goons – at his suggestion.

He spoke of the genesis of Bluebottle. “… a boy scout. This tall thin chap turned up with a ginger beard and knobbly knees to see Sellers. He said (Bluebottle voice) Hello Mr Sellers, can you go out for tea. Sellers thought – I don’t believe this. And I met him afterwards. Eccles and Bluebottle became friends.”

I asked him about Grytpype-Thynne. “He’s one of those johnnies (Grytpype-Thynne voice ) Parkinson the politician. Jeffrey Archer. One of those.”

And finally, I asked him what he would teach my two year old daughter about the world she’s growing up in. “Oh, only have one child. And tell her the reason for it. Give her a sense of the divine, a sense of beauty, a sense of love, a sense of wonder. Never hit her; otherwise she’ll think that violence is justice. And that wonderful free commodity love – bestow that upon her. And don’t smoke in front of her.”

Well we did have another child.  Shamefully, I did hit my first child (and the second one), but I also love them both dearly – and I did give up smoking. As for the divine, that, Spike, is hard to bestow.


Rivers on the Brink

Kim Harris

Kim Harris

We went to see Rivers on the Brink: Inside the Murray-Darling Basin at the SH Ervin Gallery. It was an interesting counterpoint to ‘Songlines: tracking the Seven Sisters’at the National Museum of Australia

Whereas Songlines presented an absorbing, beautiful and powerful vision from an Indigenous viewpoint, Rivers offered the story of the tragic and reprehensible destruction of the Murray-Darling river system – a microcosm of the destruction of the entire eco-system of the continent – from the viewpoint of European and Indigenous Australian artists.

It was a powerful and disturbing show. But you’ll see a lot more than beautiful and poignant works of art from such artists as Badger Bates, Eddy Harris, Kim Harris , Euan McLeod Ian Marr and many others. You’ll see two distinct and telling views of this country. In many, the anger and sorrow are palpable

As we got to the end of the exhibition, and having re-visited some of the most compelling images, I found myself asking the question: what’s the difference between the whitefella and blackfella artist in this show? I asked that question of my perceptive wife. She answered that the Indigenous art is a connection to place, and the European artists’ work is an observation of place. Nailed it.

As confronted and angered as the whitefella artists showed themselves to be at this wilful destruction, they were looking at it from the outside.

And this was corroborated by my reading the review of the show by Christopher Allen in the Weekend Australian Review. Now as much as you can damn and excoriate The Oz, it has always been excellent on Indigenous matters. Not this time.

Allen’s insensitive and unseeing review is illustrated by three paintings by whitefellas: not his choice I’m sure but certainly reflective of the content. The Indigenous artists in the show are covered, or rather dismissed, in two paragraphs.

His perspective is shown when he writes, gratuitously of having known one of the European artists (Ian Marr, one of the best European contributors) and his brother Ted since school, and having helped castrate lambs at the Marr Mount Murchison property: this without connecting the grazing of lambs or other livestock to the degradation of the river system.

Brian Harris

Brian Harris


Below, two statements, one form a blackfella artist and one from a whitefella, which summarise the issues