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'.

Excellent.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Portus

It's almost a week late, but I have just finished the first unit of the Roman port of Portus.  So far I've seen how the port developed under Claudius and Nero and now have a burning desire to go there.
It must have been an amazing place in its hey day with its hexagonal pool, columnated piers and massive port of ships enclosed by walls.  And then, burning on the western end, was a massive lighthouse built on a sunken lump of concrete (now standing outside St Peter, I believe, in Rome).  

This weekend I intend to try and finish the second unit so that I am properly caught up for Monday.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

DIY Book Launch

It is a little overdue, but I am planning the launch of my latest book.  The venue and date is fixed.  The guest list is mostly compiled.  Tonight I have been designing and printing out invitations and shall be delivering most of them myself to people in the city.  It is a local book after all, which was one reason why writing it appealed so much to me.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Wild Cities

Daniel Raven-Ellison
I like this project: Daniel Raven-Ellison has spent several months walking around the UK,
monitoring his emotional reaction as he visits each place.  A true psychogeographer!

Having recently completed a similar project myself in Chester - but recording my reaction with words instead of an EEG monitor - I am very interested in where exactly he went, and also comparing our responses.