Sunday, September 03, 2017

Swansea Research

I'm researching for another novel at the moment.  This time, it is partly based in Swansea.  Swansea, a town in south Wales, is a place I used to know well because my family used to go there every summer (and at other times too) to visit my grandmother who lived there.

Because I was a child when we went to visit, there are some parts of the town I feel I know very well, other parts are hazy  - it's like joining the dots between memories. Looking at it afresh now, travelling virtually along the roads I used to know on Streetview, I am struck by how beautiful the place is - around every corner is a view of mountains or the sea.  It makes me want to go back there.

For instance, I remember my grandmother's house.  It was on one of the main roads out of the town up a steep hill, and looking on Streetview,  I can see that this road is indeed as steep as I remember it to be, but also much more narrow.  There are trees and hedges, and the place looks much more rural than I remember.

Another significant feature of my childhood was an ice-cream parlour near the sea-front called Joe's.  This sold sundaes in tall jars, including the magnificent' nut sundae'.  I once ate two of these in quick succession, little piglet that I was.Reading through 'Swansea's Frontline Kids' by Jim Owen I learn that the windows of this ice-cream parlour were smashed by stones when Italy joined on the side of Germany in World War Two, but Joe Cascarini offered free ice-cream all round on Victory in Europe Day).

Then there was the wide beach, that was only sandy when the tide was in.  When it went out we had to trudge through a darky grey sludgy mud.  This, Frontline Kids reveals,  had pillboxes and poles in the sand during the war and was sometimes out of bounds.

Then there was the town centre with its stub of a Norman castle and shops all around.  This, apart from the castle,  was all new.  The original shops, including the town's main department store, was completely razed to the ground during Swansea's three-day blitz in 1941.

Images of Swansea, compiled by the South Wales Evening Post, show this devastation when it was still raw.  The smoking ruin of Ben Evans' department store; the steel skeleton, which was all that remained of the market building, and the mounds and mounds of rubble. 

I'm interested too in what happened next, and having read through the highly entertaining Growing
Up in the Lower Swansea Valley by Jim Young about the childhood antics of a boy born just outside of the town in 1949,

I am now reading Swansea in the 1950s by Geoff Brookes.  This, no doubt, will reveal to me how this shell of a town centre became the modern city centre I knew when I was a child in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Other books I have lined up to read are: 'Bloody Welsh History Swansea' also by Geoff Brookes;

'Swansea Girls' by Catrin Collier, which is the first novel of three about coming of age in 1950s Swansea; 

and 'Swansea Girl' by Barbara Hardy, which is a memoir of an academic who was born, I think, between the wars.  

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sunday Salon: What I'm Doing 46

Another few weeks of culture: first, a political play called 'Whipping it Up' at TipTop - a local amateur dramatics group (as usual the acting was...tip top, of course:-)).  This was about the shenanigans of the whip's office written by someone who knows, I should think.  Entertaining it was too.
Mound of Shotwick Castle

Then, a couple of weeks ago, in blistering sunshine, we went with the Chester Archaeology Group to the site of Shotwick Castle.  All that's left of it now is a mound, the stones robbed away - presumably for other buildings.  But it was built in Norman times, perhaps by the first Earl of Chester, Hugh Lupus, in the eleventh century.  It was later used by the princes as a staging post as they made their way into Wales over the River Dee to subdue the Welsh.  Our little expedition was ably led by Peter Carrington, and it was very interesting hearing from the other knowledgeable people in the group too.

Chester Archaeological Group on Shotwick Castle Site
I, of course, know very little, but I have been reading about this crossing place on the Dee, and came across a book called the 'Cestrian Book of Dead' which maps the many places where people attempted to cross the Dee - only to be drowned by the incoming tide.

Apart from that, my reading has been 'The Gene' by Sidhartha Mukherjee,

'Postwar' by Tony Judt on Audible (both of these hugely impressive works),

and having finished 'Londoners' by Craig Taylor, have now started 'Our Endless Numbered Days'

by Claire Fuller on my Kindle. So far so good.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Sunday Salon: What I'm Doing 45

The summer has brought me an excellent couple of weeks of culture.

What I've seen (live).  Julius Caesar at Storyhouse.

This was the opening night and I've been wanting to write about it for some time.  It started in the foyer with Julius Caesar marching in with the crowd swarming around the audience in adulation.  The flags and banners were in blue, white and red stars, and there was footage of his arrival at the theatre in a black limousine on a big screen - pointing out the link with the modern world.  But then every time I see any Shakespeare I am reminded that all he says is timeless and endlessly relevant.

After the introduction in the foyer, we were led upstairs to the auditorium where the rest of the play continued - the cast sometimes shouting from the wings - which had the effect of including us all in the story.  The first half culminated in a satisfyingly bloody and dramatic assassination - in preparation for a second half that was one of the most gripping I've ever seen.  By complete coincidence, we found ourselves, very happily, sitting next to the poet Aled Lewis Evans, and at the end of it we just looked at each other and said exactly the same thing: 'Wow!'

Julius Caesar is now my favourite Shakespeare play.  I cannot remember ever being enthralled with any of the others I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot) as much as I was with this.

What I've seen (on TV): An Art Lover's Guide to Amsterdam, Barcelona and St Petersburg.
This was great.  Excellent presenters (I've seen them in other things and they've always been good - but to put them together was inspired, I thought). These three programmes looked at the quirky pieces of art available in each of the three cities - my afvourite segment being the one on Irma Bloom and her books.  There's an articl from the New York Times on some of them here.

And then, of course, I've read a few books.  First Gregory Norminton's The Ghost Who Bled:   collection of stories from different places and times, some with an environmental theme:  a science fiction story featuring a cult which pays homage to animals that man has made extinct, for instance; an academic's disillusionment with university life;  and a beautifully written paeon to a past accessed from a future that is lost.  The wistful meandering between now and then makes compulsive reading.

A poignant exploration of a fundamental truth - that saving someone's life forces you to hate them forever -  is joined by stories dealing with advisability of going back; creativity in a world that's falling away; and a Japanese ghost story that twists and teases between cockpit and village.

Showmanship is another motif: an actor changes his mind about a life-changing decisionand in doing so 'sobbed for his body, for the close companionship of bowels, of kidneys, of liver and spleen.'; an emperor who finds a novel way to extract information from a visionary and a ventriloquist wants to end it all.

Each story is exquisitely written but perhaps my favourite is  'In My Father's Garden' - an entertaining look at the varied ways we impose ourselves on our little piece of planet.

Apart from that I've read Engleby by Sebastian Faulks - an intriguing and brilliantly mystery primarily evoked by the unreliabilty of the narrator.

It seemed just as real as The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale that  describes a life that turns out unexpectedly- teaching me alot about life at the end of the nineteenth century.  It reminded me a little of Peter Carey's books - and not just because it was based, in part in Australia (although the Wicked Boy was non-fiction).

Now I'm on Postwar : A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt.  Because I'm listening to this I hadn't realised that it is a thousand pages long, but it impresses me so much I've just ordered it in hardback as well.  I think this may take some time.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Storyhouse: Chester's New Cultural Centre.

For the last couple of years the old Odeon building in Chester has been hidden behind hoardings, with glimpses of the renovations to turn it into the new 'Cultural Centre' fleetingly exposed.  

One winter's day, for instance,  the old back wall came off and we gawped at the  tiers of the old cinema seating framed in the space which was once the big screen.  I imagined a production there, Grecian- theatre style, the Clwydian hills forming a wild and authentic backdrop.  Another time, Hodmandod Senior noticed bricks in an elaborate pattern joining the front old portion to the newer building behind. Were they old or new?  We couldn't remember, but someone had arranged them beautifully in place.  Once, close to a Christmas last year, or maybe the one before, the inhabitants of Chester were  invited to dig where an old office block had once been, and more hoardings appeared showing finds from Chester's Roman past.  Then, in March the old library closed: a favourite building of mine.  It used to be the old Westminster Motor showroom with three brick arches and a moustached face grinning from the middle like a genial twentieth century gargoyle.   When I heard the new library was going to be a stroll-in affair, self-service like a shop, I didn't think it would work.  These days, libraries tend to be down-graded.  They are converted into gyms or taken over by computer terminals or coffee shops.  But last weekend as we passed, the hoardings had been removed from the new Storyhouse or cultural centre and we were invited in.

Those tiers of seats once exposed to the skies are now stairways

leading past peacocks perching on walls,

and Art Nouveau monkeys holding a shine to aspidistra pots.

Below them, framed by the outline of the old screen, are  modern ticket terminals

with a fifties vibe.  Alongside is a restaurant with long tables, high tables

low-level chairs

and books.  Books!

Here then, is Chester's new library, and it works really well.  Up the stairs,

alongside the original laddered windows,

part of the fabric of the place, like a vital thread

sewing together corridors,

quiet places to read

and there, beneath a track of light,

is a particular bookshelf assigned to historical fiction

which includes, as it turns out

one of mine!

I love it (and not just because of my book)!  

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sunday Salon: What I'm Doing 44

What I'm Reading
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Dr Mukherjee is a cancer specialist and the writer of the 'Emperor of all Maladies' (a biography of cancer) which won the Pulitzer Prize, and by all accounts is an excellent book.  But its subject makes it one I'd have to steel myself to read.

The Gene, on the other hand, seemed like it could be emotionally easier.  It interposes Siddhartha's family stories (on the incidence of schizophrenia) with interesting details of a story that is supect is already quite widely known (the history of the discovery of the gene).  Despite this familiarity, Dr Mukherjee still manages to find new points of interest and impressively evokes the personalities involved.

What is it about the discovery of evolution and genetics that makes it such a fascinating to me, and I guess many other people? I suppose it's because it tells us more about what we are.  I never tire of reading about it.

What I'm Reading (electronically) 
Londoners: The Days and Nights of London by Craig Taylor

I must have been reading this book for months now.  But then it is quite thick and it's something I tend to read on the phone in my spare minutes.  Since it consists of a short interviews with various people, it's a great way of spending a few spare minutes. It's also a good way of conveying how it is to live in a city.  There are taxi drivers, policemen, people who have migrated in and out, bouncers - the whole range of human life.  I'm really enjoying it and learn something new every time I dip in.

What I'm listening to
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Trolllope's writing is quite different from the modern style - as well as the 'showing' there is also a lot of 'telling' by the narrator - even so the character build to something real and entertaining.  The theme of the book is financial corruption.  A businessman of uncertain pedigree is rich from schemes  that are financed by money that is owed rather than actually owned, which sounds strikingly familiar and puts me in mind of the London property market.  House owners are rich, but only on paper.  This audiobook is narrated by Timothy West which adds to the pleasure.

What I'm Watching
Maigret at the Crossroads based on novels by Georges Simenon with screenplay by Stewart Harcourt.

Ideal TV crime drama with suitably complicated plots, lots of atmosphere in the setting post-war France and, most importantly,  starring Rowan Atkinson as the eponymous Jules Maigret.  When I first heard that Rowan Atkinson was playing the lead I couldn't imagine it would work - he is too much Bean or Blackadder, but once he opened his mouth I was converted.  His natural voice, it turns out,  is a revelation - so deep and warm to hear it is an unexpected pleasure.  I wonder if he's ever narrated an audiobook.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Leechbook

I've been waiting for this!

I'm not sure where I first read about it, but apparently this Leechbook (i.e. Collection of Medical Recipes) or something similar, has recipes that are being reinvestigated today as a cure for MRSA.

In 1934, Warren Dawson's transcription of a MS No 136 from the Medical Society of London was published by Macmillan.  It was doubtless an act of dedication.  His fascinating introduction describes how  this manuscript was a compendium of knowledge derived from classical Greek and Roman scholars, who in turn drew on work from the Egyptians and Assyrians. This then, in 1444, represented the cumulative medical knowledge of the western world - something that had been handed down in virtually the same state for over three thousand years.

The cure in question for an eye infection and came an older version of the Leechbook from the 9th century.  It involved minced onion, wine and an extract from a cow's stomach which were mixed together, chilled and kept for nine days. The resulting liquor killed 90% of a MRSA infection and, very interestingly, the cure required the complete concoction rather than a single ingredient.

So, curious to see if I can find something similar in this book, I open a page at random and come upon recipe 365, a cure for 'Gout fester'.  For this I need to   'Take a root of radish and put it in honey, three days in summer, and in winter two days; and afterwards pound it in a mortar, and make therof powder; and dry it well in a new pot and anoint the evil with honey and cast above it the powder.'  I suppose that might be worth investigating.

Then, on page 309, I find four cures for hiccoughing on page 309, which I am sure will work just as well as anything else. The last one says, 'Take smearwort and stamp it, and mingle it with good wine.  And it will destroy the hiccoughing if thou drinkest it.'

Definitely one to try on the Hodmandods - as soon as I find some smearwort.  

But there are others too: recipes for lucky days, experiments to find out if a couple are capable of conceiving and then something involving a plant that 'men called Nightshade' which is made into a powder and applied to sores in the mouth.  I think I might keep clear of that one - I rather think that one might belong to the category 'kill or cure'.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Salon: Snails and other devotees of the slow

My friend Debra Hamel gave me a beautiful book about a snail (The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey) a few years ago, and now this is joined by another one, courtesy of Alma books.  The important point about the snail, in both cases, is that it is slow.  Following its track across the floor allows plenty of time to reflect - for the invalid recuperating on a bed and also, according to the The Story of a Snail who Discovered the Importance of Being Slow the snail itself.

The snail in this children's story by Luis Sepulveda is the type of animal that asks questions.  One thing bothers him in particular: why are snails so slow?

The answer, the owl tells him, is that he is carrying a weight on his back.  But that doesn't seem quite right to the snail, and he continues to bother the snail community until he is exiled.  From here it is a classic story of a quest.  His allies are other creatures including another slow creature, a tortoise.  The tortoise, of course, is another slow creature, and he is old and wise (I can personally vouch for this: my own tortoise is very old and she never moves unless she absolutely has to).

These two amble along together for a while until they reach 'The End of Life' (a dark level surface ''as though a slice of dark sky had become stuck to the ground').  This is the forewarning of something even more sinister that has the potential to wreak disaster to the snails.  So now the snail's quest becomes a mission to not only warn  but convince his relatives.  This is not straightforward and not without casualties, but the ending is satisfying and optimistic.

I very much enjoyed reading this elegantly told and illustrated little story, and look foarward to testing it out on Hodmandod Major's Majorette next time I see her.  (Being half-French she has tried the national delicacy, but seemed to be repulsed by the experience. Quite right too: snails are not for eating. )

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Learning Supplements

I am still here.  Unfortunately, the blogging has taken a bit of a bashing due to my signing on to my courses at Future Learn.  Within an hour or two of starting all other life was abandoned.

So, a few weeks later, I have completed the History of Portus from Southampton University,
The Future of Genomics with St George's Hospital, and soon I'll have finished
A Virtual Map of Ancient Rome with Reading University, and Reading in a Digital Age from the University of Basel.

These, of course, have had to be supplemented with some auspicious reading.
The Future of Genomics goes very well with the new paperback edition of The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The courses on Rome and Portus have encouraged me to download the audio version of SPQR by Mary Beard (although I now feel I need to pick up the print version of this book from my bookshelf too).
While Reading in a Digital Age introduced me (via a fellow student's reference to a newspaper article) to  The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth.

I told myself this will be enough.  Time to move on and write that novel or at least make a start.  But somehow I've found myself enlisting for just one more.  And just a few others.

Friday, February 24, 2017

My Sit Stand Desking.

My new study is taking shape: bookshelves made for me by a local wardrobe manufacturer, and then a wardrobe doubling for the occasional guest, but mainly containing shelving for my stationery.

I am particularly pleased with my new (to me) desk bought from a used office furniture place.  It not only fits into the space we left for it (phew!), but is also height-adjustable so that for the first time ever I have a desk at the correct height for my (almost) 5'3'' frame.  My feet are flat on the floor!  My elbows are at desk height, and the top part of my screen is at eye-level.

Now that the 'sit' part is satisfactory, I am contemplating adding an adjacent 'stand' or 'walk' part so I can alternate between the two.  Instead of having a desk that adjusts up and down, I am thinking of buying a stand for another monitor (which mirrors the first) with a low-powered treadmill beneath.  Then, when my FitBit commands me to move, I can - all the time continuing with whatever I was doing at my desk.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Snail Serum

One of my favourite parts of the Times is the conversation in 'The Lowdown'.  On Wednesday it was written by Hilary Rose on the topic of Snail Serum, and was particularly good:

'I am growing concerned about the visible signs of ageing and I am intensely gullible,' 

'Excellent.  You've come to the right beauty hall.  Might I present Madam with the latest thing in moisturisers?  It's made with snail slime.'

After establishing how the snail slime moisturiser is made, and where (Italy), the intensely gullible one is able to summarise how the different nationalities utilise the snail. 

'In England we squash them.  In France they eat them.  In Italy they smear them on their faces...'

Thus providing 'definitve proof' that 'The European project is doomed'.