Sunday, April 30, 2006

Stalinist Architecture.

Last night Jonathan Meades gave his take on architecture under Stalin in the USSR on the BBC. It was fascinating - the architecture seemed to me to be both of its time - approximately the 1930s and resembling the Senate House building in central London - and yet also exhibiting a peculiar Russian twist in the form of ornamentation adhering to the sides like mould. There was one statue of quite incredible proportions 'celebrating' the victory of war. It was of a well-endowed but strangely masculine-looking woman holding up a sword and shield, the cameras gradually drawing away to good effect - as the figure of Jonathan Meades in trade mark black suit and sunglasses became more and more minute the statue appeared to swell as more and more became visible. It was monstrous, looming over the derelict buildings, wrecked cars and weeds of the former USSR - threatening and comical at the same time.

He also showed us the Russian Orthodox cathedrals rebuilt after Stalin's demise and explained how the Soviet calendar changed and changed again - from the Julian calendar (kept until the twentieth century just because it wasn't the Gregorian Roman Catholic calendar) to a peculiar Soviet calendar based on a 5 day week and when that didn't work another was adopted based on a six day week. Days were lost and people actually looked for them.

There were some brilliant pieces of writing outlining the Russian preoccupation with intoxication - viewed as the fourth essential in life after food, shelter and sex. It explains the low life expectancy of the Russian male and I read somewhere that it is a traditional and accepted part of Russian life that in middle age the man turns to drink. Meades explained that intoxication was not just limited to the ingestion of alcohol - shoe cleaning fluids, glue and a myriad of other substances are commonly consumed including, in some northern parts, a fungus which is highly valued, and whose potency is increased through renal processing. Consequently the fungus eater drinks his own urine again and again, getting higher and higher with each new batch.

Stalin, like Hitler and Napoleon and many other successful dictators was an outsider. Stalin was a mixture of Soviet nationalities including Mongol, who rose to power in Russia (whereas Hilter was an Austrian who rose to power in Germany and Napoleon a Corsican who rose to power in France). It is as though it takes an outsider to take the nation's temperature in a crisis and take control. Once in power Stalin made various declarations including saying that paper used to print poetry was wasted paper, and that it was a comrade's duty to be happy - to be unhappy was a crime against the state. He also attempted to make garden cities which turned out to look like grotesque concrete barracks and had dreams of building gigantic towers with statues of dead but revered leaders like Lenin on the top.

It was quite depressing, especially as much of Stalin's dream remains - in buildings as well as in the minds of men. The programme ended with a Stalin rally in Moscow. A similar rally for Hitler would be inconceivable in Germany, but in Russia their homicidal megalomaniac is still revered. Things were ordered then, the demonstrators claimed - but at such a cost - and anyway, I doubt that even that was true. Like that other traditional symbol the Russian doll (which turns out to be a Japanese import of the early twentieth century) nothing in Russia is exactly what it seems.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Trees and the Quest for Happiness

Last November I started a quest for happiness. All of us, at least at one time in our lives, will be stung by the grief of losing someone - and the sudden death of my brother nearly six months ago made me feel as if I had fallen into an extremely deep dark pit from which I had to find a way out. The only way I could think of doing this was to concentrate on the things that gave me little sparks of happiness so I could see the walls and maybe some indication of escape.

The things that made me happy then continue to do so now. They are simple things but for me they work well: exercising ferociously so that all there is to concentrate on is how fast my legs are moving; writing something so absorbing that for a time I am in another world; talking to people around me; concentrating on some task that will help someone else as well (practically not emotionally - I tried giving emotional help but that didn't work at all) and thinking of ways to remember him so in some ways he lives on.

Infinity Software, a Florida-based website company that I work for as a free-lance writer, made the incredibly kind and moving gesture of buying some trees in memory of my brother in a forest close to where I live. Since my brother had converted to Islam he had been buried in a Muslim graveyard in Leicester and I was told, initially, that as a woman I would not be able to visit his grave so to have these trees was wonderful. In fact I liked the idea so much that I have now bought an oak tree with my brother's name on a plaque in memory of him. These trees will last for hundreds of years. I like to think of them breathing the air he breathed and some part of him living on in them. I think of the comforting sound of the wind through the branches, the gentle sweeping of the leaves though the air, and the fact that each tree will harbour so much: insects, small mammals, birds - each organism living on because of that tree - and it makes me happy. Happy not in the manic way I feel pedalling a bike nor in the mildly euphoric way I feel when I read through a few of my words that I feel have worked, but happy in a quiet way. Life goes on and that is good. Because only by life going on can my brother be remembered - all the good things he did, his intelligence, the parts of him that I see in my sons - the touch of his hand, the gap between his mouth and nose, what he said, and the parts of him that are in my books, because he has gone into each one.

I have not seen the trees yet, but I shall. When I see them I am determined to be happy, determined to see the good in each leaf. According to an interview with a psychologist called Ed Diener in the Radio Times this week happiness come from having good friends and family and caring for them as much as they care for us; involving ourselves in activities that we enjoy and value (which are usually the things we are best at - not in my case, but I do love exercise); working towards, rather than achieving, goals, and finally controlling the way we look at the world and not letting trivial irritations distract us from the main business in life (and happiness). According to Hodmandod Senior and my agent I need to improve my performance in this last facet of my life. Easier said than done, I find, but I intend to try.

Friday, April 28, 2006


Recently we went in search of Neolithic footprints at Formby (you can see an example at the top of Jonathan Wonham's blog, Connaissances - the imprint of the large toe is pointed and this is thought to be due to a large uncut toe nail). However once we arrived on the great expanse of Formby sands,

which seemed to stretch for as a far as the eye could see, the only footprints we could see were these...

which even a Hodmandod was able to date as probably more recent than Neolithic.

However the day was not a failure because behind the sand dunes there is an unusual and recent pine forest (about 100 years old) which turns out to be...

the ideal habitat for red squirrels and is the best place to see them in the UK.

They were surprsingly tame, running out quite close to us to recover nuts and adopting the typical squirrel-eating-nut pose. They did seem to be a bit thin and weedy-looking though, and their tails seemed decidedly unbushy. We put this down to too much sleeping and not enough eating over winter.

We intend to go back again to Formby - and this time join a guided tour because I think that is the only chance we'd have of spotting the footprints - which I think would be very exciting to see.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Pen's April Talk (Four Scientists in Search of an Author)

On Tuesday night there were many firsts for me:

my first Pen meeting;

my first encounter with a zebra fish embryo. This is a fast growing creature - in just a few days it turns from a single-celled fertilised egg to something differentiated and clearly living. It is also conveniently transparent - under the microscope it is possible to see the blood-cells shifting around in bursts which had some sort of strange chaotic order. Dr Kate Lewis, a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, gave a talk which I found quite enthralling - in eight minutes she communicated her enthusiasm so effectively that at the end I felt quite desperate to learn more.

my first encounter with a radioactive glow-in-the dark fruit bowl courtesy of Dr Mark Miodownik, a lecturer from King's College, London. He was also very enthusiastic. I have his card because he showed us new materials that ordered themselves on an atomic scale - as I guess most things do - table salt, for instance, always forms a giant lattice stretching out in all directions like an enormous cage; whereas sulphur tends to form itself into molecular rings of eight atoms. The difference with Mark's project though, as far as I could see, is that he aims to be in charge of the way the molecules link together - rather like cutting a tree so it falls just so - into the clearing, not on your car.

I also gained my first very limited understanding of those fundamental particles that are smaller than neutrons, protons and electrons. At last I have a glimmer of insight of what exactly they do at CERN - only a glimmer though, I'm afraid. The idea that you cannot know everything for certain is something I came across in my undergraduate course, and always found the thought uncomfortable. At CERN the particle physicists think they may be making very small black holes - and one person in the audience said that some people are concerned that this could start off something catastrophic. But I am going to try and forget that because I have more than enough to keep myself awake already - instead of counting sheep I tend to count catastrophes - global warming, that volcano under Yellowstone Park, the possibility of a comet striking...But Dr Tara Shears's talk was very interesting nevertheless;

and finally I had my first out-of-the-blue encounter with a person who has read one of my books - I suppose a geologist might be expected to have an interest in Alfred Wegener - but still Dr Michael Welland had read it, and was kind enough to say he'd enjoyed it although he'd disagreed with some of it, so I was pleased. Michael is a consultant geologist who looks into the relationship between geology and wine and had a lot of interesting things to say about creativity - in science and writing - a subject of some fascination to me at the moment.

It was an absorbing session which gave me much to think about. It was organised by the novelist and scientist Dr Ann Lackie who has developed a scheme I have mentioned before called SciTalk which aims to bring scientist and writers together - and I have found it of much use already.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Another 'Keeper of the Snails'

Well, I'm off on my travels tomorrow for a few days - in the meantime I would like to give you a link to another 'Keeper of the Snails'. I think she lives in either Japan or the US - I can't work out which - all I know is that she's only twenty years old and has written a very funny essay on the trials of being a student ...and having to write essays.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Great Orme Mine

Above the town of Llandudno along the north Welsh coast, is a high limestone headland called The Great Orme. It was formed during Carboniferous times in a warm sea, and today, where the rock is exposed above the thatch of sheep-trimmed grass, it is possible to see the smashed remains of shells, bones and creatures like brachiopods. People have used the startlingly white rocks to pick out messages on the intensely green slopes: 'Everton FC'; 'Julie 4 Ahmed'; the star of David, a cross.

But it was what lay beneath that interested me the most: the oldest prehistoric mine in the world. After some millions of years this limestone was uplifted and cracked so that hot fluids rich with minerals - in particular copper - could percolate upwards, changing the limestone around it into the softer browner dolomite and filling the cracks with copper ore.

Like the copper roofs of churches it is mainly green - the beautifully banded malachite, reminiscent of the rings of trees - and maybe that is how it grows, one layer of mineralising fluid and then another with a slightly different composition giving a slightly different shade - a summer ring and then a thinner winter one according to the seasons of the middle of the earth. It is easy to spot: bright green against the white rock - an essential ingredient (with tin) for the bronze age. So 3000 years ago, at the time of Noah they came - Neolithic miners, digging out the rocks with bones and then smashing them with boulders of dolerite. While one ancient man was sailing around the middle east hunting for land my ancestors were digging into the ground searching for a more vivid green.

They sent in their children - some of the tunnels were too narrow for anyone aged much more than five - and they worked mainly in darkness, only sometimes using candles of animal fat to help them sort the waste from the ore. If the rock was hard they sometimes lit fires so that the heat would make the rock crack and come away more easily, and it is the charcoal from these fires that has enabled the mines and tunnels to be dated. They worked down through nine levels to 70 metres below the surface - an incredible feat.

The headland was mined again in the mid-nineteenth century - a straight shaft down to below sea-level blasted out with dynamite and they recorded then that they cut through ancient working - either Roman or ancient Welsh. In one place they came across a cavern that was 40 yards long and one of the tunnels we followed passed a large deep cavern with the marks of the bone tools in the roof.

Only traces of the malachite are left now, a smear of green along parts of the roof resembling moss or lichen. It is estimated that 1 700 tonnes of copper were extracted making this one of the largest industrial sites of the ancient world.

The tunnels we passed through were narrow with uneven roofs and we were grateful for the hard hats because each of us managed to bang our heads against some overhang. These tunnels were just wide enough to walk through, and to each side there were smaller, even more narrow tunnels, leading off into darkness, also worked - presumably by children. It was easy to imagine working in this place, and how incredibly frightening it must have been for a child because I guess, like us, Neolithic children were afraid of the dark. They would have had to be led down into the darkness for some time before reaching the place they had to work, and then they would have had to squeeze into the rock, cutting themselves on the sharp edges and bruising themselves on the unexpected protruberances and overhangs.

Today archeologists find carefully placed stone hammers and bone tools which may have marked out direction or may have been offering to spirits. In the nineteenth century the miners also thought they could hear spirits knocking on the walls which they called Knockers. The Knockers led the miners to the richer veins of copper ore. If the vein wasn't very good the miners would leave a small offfering asking for better luck next time - I wonder if the Neolithic miners were equally superstitious. It has always interested me how these heathen superstitions persist, even in a population that is nominally Christian. Though I guess the presence of spirits they could hear for themselves would be much more convincing than the one remote being they heard about from the man in the pulpit.

After the ore was extracted it was heated in a kiln to 1100 degrees Celsius with the aid of charcoal and air from bellows - whereupon the copper would appear, and this copper then could be mixed with molten tin (brought in from Devon or Cornwall) and then poured into a mould to produce a sword, axe-head or any other object of choice. It is incredible to think of this quite complex technological process going on so long ago. These people lived in hill-forts like the one we saw in our walk above Rowen. They wove crude garments, slept communally in large round huts with daub and wattle walls and thatched roofs. They made pots from clay called beakers, some of which they buried with their dead, and because of this were called the beaker people. But they were not hunter-gatherers and were not nomadic. They had started to farm - grew crops and kept animals such as sheep and cattle. In many ways people were still living like that in the mid-nineteenth century when the mine was reopened again. By then of course iron was the metal of choice, but many people were still living in exactly the same conditions as their ancestors: the floors were of earth, their walls daub and wattle, their roofs thatched and they kept the same animals in their small-holdings. Far away in the towns and cities there may have been factories and shops but in rural Wales much of life was the same as it had been centuries.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

My Reading Pile

As I mentioned before this August I am looking forward to be one of two guest authors at a reading week in the Languedoc organised by 7 day wonder holidays. The other author is Jane Rogers, who has written many books including MR WROE'S VIRGINS - the screen play as well as the novel - something I remember it quite vividly although it was on TV quite a few years ago now. So I have bought this novel, as well as her latest, THE VOYAGE HOME and the one she is going to discuss during the week, ISLAND. I have taken a peek at the first page of THE VOYAGE HOME and felt myself getting immediately absorbed, but have put it down again - determined to keep it as a treat for later.

Apart from that the other books lined up are AUSTERLITZ by WG Sebold, WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte, NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro with 26a by Diana Evans, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain and PATCHWORK PLANET by Anne Tyler in an 'extras' list. These have joined my reading pile...

On the top of the pile is HOPE AND HEARTBREAK by Russell Davies which I am half-way through - just to complete the research on my current novel. Next are a series of short story anthologies because next on my to do list is a short story or two, then I am going to start research on my next novel ready to go down to Oxford in June. I usually have at least two books on the go at once and intend to review each one as I finish.

Ah, so many books, and I am such a slow reader - and I am going to a book launch in Liverpool tonight - an anthology of short stories by David Evans whose first novel I loved so much last year...Still, it is all good stuff and I think I am very lucky to be able to spend so much time doing what I love.

Penguin Cover

Here is the Penguin cover for 98 REASONS FOR BEING - slithering quietly into the world in true Hodmandod fashion around about December 2006 according to a Penguin catalogue I just discovered on the internet.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Local fame?

Ali Hollindale, my aerobics teacher, just brought round last night's local newspaper for me to see. They just published the interview I gave a few weeks ago, unfortunately things have not come out entirely according to plan...

Tiger Slug

I couldn't resist...101 words on the Tiger Slug (see previous post).

We dangle. For this instant I am she and you are he. A thread of slime anchors us to a leaf like spittle. We perform the act. Part of you into part of me - and vice versa. My eggs. Your eggs. Each clutch awash with a little of something foreign.

Then we drop, but before we do I lunge forward. Like me you lack vocal chords but if you had a voice it would now be higher. A little more of you in me than you planned. A snack. A tasty morsel. He, she. No matter. Now you are neither.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Slugs and snails and...woodlice

I opened the Spring 2006 edition of the NATURAL WORLD - magazine of the Wildlife Trust of which the Hodmandods are interested if not active members and found a feature called 'Secrets of the soil-dwellers'. Two of the animals featured were the Tiger Slug and the Garden Snail. Consequently I have found yet more fascinating information on the mating rituals of these molluscs (which are related to octopus and giant squid, apparently - although I should have guessed since they have the same type of squishiness (technical term)).

According to Brian Eversham, who is a national authority on beetles and molluscs, the Tiger slug, at 20 cm or 8 inches long is the biggest of the British slugs. They are famous for dangling from a rope of slime to mate (which I guess beats a chandelier) the more aggressive members of the species biting off their partner's genitalia, dropping to the ground and proceeding to eat them - which makes me think of James Bond, though I can't quite understand why. I was thinking of doing a 101 words story based on this but I think it would be a little too sordid even for me.

As for the snails Brian Eversham reports that some garden snails have hairy shells. Obviously I am going to have to inspect my snails more closely because I haven't yet come across these yet. However I have come across two other pieces of snail information recently; that some snails are sinister because they have left-handed spirals - and crabs find these more difficult to eat, although this has not meant that they have become more plentiful over time; and that some snails are venomous and are rather like a pharmaceutical company on one slithering leg since they are always developing new poisons to outwit their prey. These poisons act on the nervous system and one of these compounds has already found a use as a painkiller and the rest are being investigated as being of potential benefit in the treatment of brain diseases such as Parkinson's and Altzheimers.

Other interesting animals mentioned in the NATURAL WORLD article are woodlice which are aquatic and carry their water around with them as a thin film on their underside. They breathe through gills and so if they dry out they suffocate like a fish out of water. Now when I was studying biology at school and when I taught it myself there was one biological experiment that always worked - put a heap of woodlice in the middle of a gauze-covered dish that had been divided up into quarters - one dark and damp, one dark and dry, one light and wet, one light and dry, and watch to see what would happen. The poor little animals would always go and huddle in the damp dark section. Conclusion - woodlice prefer damp dark conditions. But I know now that in fact they were only saving themselves from suffocation. It strikes me as a little cruel.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

Ah, Easter - and time for the two Senior Hodmanods to crawl out of their shells and into the beloved land. We travelled along the coast for a few miles west to where the mountains meet the sea and took a short stroll....

upwards, and upwards thinking of the cakes and the tea that were waiting for us when we came down in the promising-looking tea shop we had just passed,

along the way encountering sheep which had rather obligingly provided us with sweet little Easter lambs

and a mare with an Easter foal

until we came to a cromlech where the ancient people buried their dead

and the modern Hodmandod is still trying to get out

then admired the view of the river Conwy

and came across the medieval remains of the shelters of shepherds

and the site of a Neolithic settlement (the mound on the right protected by motte and ditch to the left)

then a fourteenth century church with services every Sunday in the summer

with its bell still in place

and gravestones, most worn smooth

and pews, two organs operated by bellows, inscriptions in Welsh looking oddly pagan (with skull and cross-bone below) - and a sledge on the wall hung high on the wall for when the winter was cold

then at last, down again through woods and fields filled with sheep and mud to the tea room which was very tragically SHUT! Pah.

Friday, April 14, 2006

64 CLARKE by Andrew Holmes

‘Do you have a shredder?’ a friend asked me recently. She told me that she had heard it was important not to throw away important papers intact – because the unscrupulous can use them to access your bank account. I have to admit that I thought this was taking things too far – but having read Andrew Holmes’s book 64 CLARKE I am not so sure.

Ransacking bin bags for important documents is the occupation of one of the more law-abiding characters in the book. Max lives in the ground floor flat at 64 Clarke Street. He is 38 and finding life unbearable for many reasons: he has been falsely accused and stigmatised for a crime with a minor; he is in thrall to a man called Chick and he has the misfortune to live below a young couple called Dash and Sophie who have laminated flooring, an addiction to late-night television and are inconsiderate in the extreme. This background of noise and disturbance and the effect it has on Max is one of the very effective repeated motifs in the book.

However Dash and Sophie have their own problems. Sophie is an ambitious dogsbody in the offices of a fashionable magazine who has found that having a boyfriend with a dubious occupation gives her a little street credibility; at least in the eyes of the editorial staff. Dash himself is a seller of loudspeakers from a white van – a racket controlled by the ubiquitous Chick. (See here for Andrew Holmes’s interesting account of the genesis of that particular characteristic).

So both tenants of 64 Clarke Street are connected not just by their common address but by their association with Chick.

Chick is obnoxious and has an equally obnoxious son. The character of his wife, though, is less straightforward. Andrew Holmes has a talent for description:

‘Mrs Chick had arrived. Her hair was blonde, the colour of cornflakes, and dyed in the middle-aged way with the roots showing. She chewed gum. Below hard eyes were shadows of flesh as though she had once been in a fight from which her face had never properly healed. To Dash she looked like she had returned battle-scarred and defeated from the love-wars of her youth…’

which is excellent enough, but then he goes on to add what I now realise is the Andrew Holmes signature – a touch of well-observed humour

‘…She’d imagined herself as Kate Winslet on the prow of the boat, maybe Demi Moore at the potter’s wheel in Ghost, or Julia Roberts taking a bath in Pretty Woman. Yet at some point the urge to meet, mate and procreate had become so overwhelming that she had allowed her dreams of Richard Gere and Patrick Swayze to become the nightmare of Chick, a man who openly scratched his testicles, and then sniffed his fingers (base notes of tobacco, heady top notes of bollock sweat); a man who, that night and despite her protestations, had insisted she show the boys her birthday present.’

Ha, a good place to end that quote, I think. I shall just say that the birthday present is pretty funny - another repeated motif used to good effect.

Apart from this excellent line-up of characters there is, of course a plot. I would guess that Andrew Holmes is a plot-driven writer, rather than a character-driven one, because I think the plot is the main feature of the book. It is this plot (as well as the quality of the writing) that ensures the book is an exciting page-turner. I suppose if I were to categorise it I would call it an example of high-quality crime-fiction. The crime is the disappearance of a six-year old boy called Ben Snape. He disappears from a crowded London tube platform after being separated from his father – and the connection between the characters at 64 Clarke Street and mystery of what has happened to Ben is the meat of the book. The ending is satisfying – and I know this is said so much it is a bit of a cliché – but it would make an excellent thriller on the TV – much, much better than the insipid, confusion-serving-instead-of-plot stuff served up in some recent crime dramas.

These main characters are supported by a good cast of minor characters. There is Lightweight, Dash’s driver, Milne, the policeman in charge of the case, Max’s sister (the relationship between these two very sensitively portrayed), Ben Snape’s parents and Ben himself, and even Dash’s ex-driver, Warren and his girlfriend, LaDonna. Each one memorably and humorously described:

‘LaDonna, not a woman to whom restraint came easily, had been unstinting in her contempt for Warren’s pecuniary woe. Like Sophie she ascribed to the R&B-sponsored theory that jewellery, clothes and sundry beauty treatments should be subsidised by the person for whom they were intended. ‘How ‘m I expected to pay for all this ? she’d asked, sweeping sharp expensive hands up and down herself. (‘Get a refund,’ replied Warren – it wasn’t a night the neighbours were likely to forget in a hurry.)’

The writing has been compared with Martin Amis, but for me it also smacks of the wit of Amis senior – in the dialogue and action as well as the characterisation:

‘Lightweight gurgled a second time, trying to say something to the nurse , who bent to hear him make some moist noises. His finger came up like E.T.’s pointing downwards to wards Dash, who was dancing nervously.
‘He says you’re a dead man,’ repeated the nurse to Dash , then, ‘Sorry, no…’ She put her ear back to Lightweight. More wet sounds. ‘You’re a fucking dead man.’ She looked accusingly at Dash . ‘Now do you want to tell me what’s going on?’

It is a fine book – so highly entertaining, absorbing and very well-written that despite the F-word I am sure that even Mr Lawrence would thoroughly approve.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Joyce Vincent

I think this is one of the saddest things I have ever read.

I believe that each individual deserves to be remembered by someone. This woman was in a refuge and presumably escaping from a life she found unbearable. Perhaps she wanted to disappear but I find the thought that someone could die alone like this and not be missed by anyone at all for over three years quite tragic.

The report has been extended since I wrote this. The dates are not clear and the picture changes but is no less tragic. I am glad to see that she had sisters so they will remember her - in happier times, I hope, before she slipped through the net.

Added in December 2011. I am delighted to hear that a film (Dreams of a Life) has been made about Joyce Vincent. There is more information here. It sounds excellent.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Changing at Crewe

'Hood City' again yesterday - half way across the country to meet my mother in Nottingham - six hours on the train there and back. It rained. It was cold. I plugged in my ipod and muffled myself in sound. Then at each station I walked along the platform to the forbidden land, where the concrete walkway tips down to meet the track and the signs tell you not to go. So I went to the edge and looked.

The trains roared past taking the air with them with a glorious ferocity and then after they had gone there was just me and the wind and music flowing into my head making me feel wildly happy over nothing. No one stopped me. So I loitered. I investigated strange little huts - their plywood outsides eaten away with damp and decay, and inside rusty radiators, bolted doors, a broken chair and a half-filled waste bin. Each one, I guess, someone's kingdom, someone's office. Someone had lived a life here, signed papers, filed them away, passed small laws. Then they had gone. There must have been one last closing of the door, one last piece of paper shoved in the bin, the someone had risen from his chair and had not sat down again. There had been one final time - but maybe at the time it had seemed like an ending just for now. Then the world had gone on but this hut had stayed as it was.

And now nature creeps in, like the grains of sand over Ozymandias. Damp fingers at the walls and edges upwards. Rust forms orange blossoms, one petal falling away to reveal another. In the night there are rats gnawing at the toxic particle board and making nests with electric cables. And the king of this place is gone, his laws long-forgotten.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Pre-Raphaelite Drawings at the Lady Lever Art Gallery

To celebrate the fact that I have, as far as I am concerned at the moment, FINISHED MY NOVEL, Hodmandod Senior and I went to the Lady Lever art gallery in Port Sunlight near Liverpool to look at some Pre-Raphaelite drawings. H.S. likes this sort of art very much, and I like rolling my eyes at it, going urgh and generally being a bit of a Philistine - so a good time was had by both of us - especially as the Lady Lever art gallery serves some very good cakes which we had to have before looking at the drawings (for energy) and afterwards (as a reward for the painful business of appreciating culture).

There were some good drawings though - and I particularly liked this one which is a study for a painting of a mermaid by Edward Burne-Jones called DEPTHS OF THE SEA. I like it because her determined vindictiveness comes through so very beautifully. In the picture she is dragging the man she loves to the bottom of the sea where he will drown, but at least she will have him to herself...

Port Sunlight Village is in itself a very interesting place. It is a model village designed by one of the Lord Levers for the workers employed in his factory. The houses are all different and there are lots of green spaces so his workers had an unusual and enviable place to live.

Saturday, April 08, 2006


While I was in London I spent a happy couple of days in the British Library researching the history of computers - or rather the history of the effect of computers on those fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to encounter them. I spent most of my time reading a fascinating book called THE VIRTUAL COMMUNITY which was written by Howard Rheingold in 1994 (to my great joy I find that it is available on-line here). The book is overwhelmingly optimistic (and therefore reassuring) in tone - the fact that he was habitually spending 2 hours a day on-line participating in a virtual community via bulletin boards he believed to be a cause for celebration - although he admitted there were disadvantages as well benefits in this way of living.

He quoted Ray Oldenburg in THE GREAT GOOD PLACE who claims that each individual needs 3 spaces: a place to live; a place to work and a place to gather socially. Rheingold points out that, for some, the virtual community is serving this latter need since physical social gatherings are fast disappearing in western society. Furthermore there is more chance that an individual will find other people on-line who share their interests (since the pool is so much larger than the local physical one) - particularly if these interests are unusual or specialised. Also some personalities may actually find it preferable to interact with others virtually if they are not so good at speaking spontaneously - they can think about what they are going to say on a blog or a bulletin board. The internet also has the effect of democratising responses - those that domineer in conversation do not have the same opportunity on-line so that even the most timid has a voice. Yup, certainly true for me - and many other writers I would say. As I keep telling my agent - my brain seems to be far better connected to my hands than my voice.

The internet is also serving as a place to work. There are advantages ('you never have to get out of your pajamas' says Rheingold. Very true - my postman is under the impression that I work nights and leaves parcels by the door rather than knocking so that he doesn't disturb me) and disadvantages - 'the occupational hazard of the self-employed, home-based symbolic analyst of the 1990s is isolation'. But the internet can help with this too - by providing the 'tactical and emotional support' for these workers (computer programmers, writers, artists and designers) that others get from the office or factory. I certainly depend on support from my virtual friends as well as from my local friends, and sometimes feel my day only starts properly when it is the turn of their side of the planet to be lit by the sun.

Rheingold also points out that on the internet people can both reveal more about themselves anonymously in a forum yet at the same time revealing less (basic information about their name, age and where they live). I am sure this is the case - there is a strange kind of intimacy apparent in many forums and blogs - especially in those that are 'anonymous'. These are often the most interesting.

He also described the disadvantages - addiction to being on-line could be more powerful that a physical addiction to coke - one particular 'pothead' finding that he had ignored a line of coke waiting for him beside his computer in his absorption in contributing to the on-line conversation. This person went on to commit virtual suicide (removing all postings using a 'scribble weapon') before going on to commit suicide in real life. Rheingold went on to describe MUDders who play virtual reality games (set in dungeons - ah yes, I remember Dungeons and Dragons addicts from university) for 80 hours a week and therefore do not participate in real life very much at all. I think this sort of addiction is becoming more and more widespread. You start to live in this unreal world. It is intense, absorbing, all-consuming. You become isolated, pale, unable to communicate except via the keyboard. You start to think you are someone else. You lose all interest in the outside real world. You begin to lose all your real friends and your family drifts away. You forget to wash. You forget to sleep or eat...just like being mid-novel in fact...

Cheese Face

I think I mentioned that one of the literary agents I met at the party last week was Dutch. She said she called her agency after her father. Of course her English was perfect with hardly a trace of an accent. I said that she looked Dutch - blonde, very tall, and that broad, open type of face - and she laughed and agreed. 'Yes, in school they called me Cheese Face,' she said. 'That's what they call people like us - little blonde plaits and a white hat and we would be perfect on the front of the cheese packet.'

It is not a term I've heard before but this morning I've come across it again in Gavin Esler's report from Argentina; in Buenos Aires, apparently, 'Cara de Queso' is a term of abuse, but he does not say why.

Otherwise I see from the report that Buenos Aires has not changed much since I was there two years ago. It is a place of extremes, perhaps more than most capital cities - the very affluent living alongside the very poor. For instance I looked up from my breakfast through the huge sheets of glass in my luxury hotel one morning and saw a woman sheltering in the doorway of a church, a baby in her lap - she had obviously been there all night. Then returning from a tango show at 1 am my taxi was stopped in the middle of the city by traffic lights and children suddenly appeared in the front of the car juggling and then their friends tapping at the windows for money. During the day the city seemed prosperous, vibrant and cultured (although edgy especially at the airport - and I was warned to take particular care both here and at the bus stations) it was only at night the other side of Buenos Aires seemed to come to life.

Favourite Book Covers

I see Ben Peek spotted my post on my favourite book cover before I accidentally removed it. So here it is again. I like this cover because it sticks in my mind - as soon as I saw it I started making up stories about it...

The boy is poor, 'has a bit of a mouth on him', he's obviously up to something, he lives sometime in the mid twentieth century, he's not particularly well-nourished and has to fight for his share of the family fortune - money, sweets, treats, fags - he can't sit still, he bunks off from school, he goes around in a little gang who look a lot like he does, his dad is in jail, his mother struggles to make ends meet and he has an indulgent grandfather whom he loves and will soon lose, once he persuaded a girl much larger than he is to kiss him and couldn't see what all the fuss is about, he likes the teacher he had last year but loathes the one he has now and there is a priest that scares him which is why he never goes to church any more although he knows he will burn in hell for this, but it seems just so far away right now it doesn't bother him.

I think the image is striking, I love the shape, the fact that it is in black and white with just that touch of colour. It intrigues, it makes me want to pick it up. It is part of the book much more than any cover has a right to be, and I think I remember Roddy Doyle paying tribute to it when he received the Booker Prize - rather a long time ago now.

I was wondering what others people's choice would be and was interested to see that Ben's choice is THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER CLAY by Michael Chabon. He says it is best seen in its entirety because the cover is the wraparound sort so the front is only part of the picture. I like those wraparound ones too. One thing I like about the US cover of one of my books is the way an eye has accidentally ended up on the spine..from where it follows you around the room, of course.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Party

Sometimes I'm not very good at parties. On Tuesday night though I finally managed to plunge in, and after some embarrassing loitering on the fringes of groups met some very interesting people and enjoyed talking to them - many people - Jake Arnott's siblings; Jake himself; Jill Dawson and Louise Doughty (who won an Arts Council award the same time I did for FIRES IN THE DARK - a book about the persecution of the gypsies during the second world war); authors involved in the FALL anthology or Santa's Mix - Hari Kunzru, Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne; the designer of Jill Dawson's brilliant website who is also an actor soon to appear in a Jack Dee show; Duncan Minchell, the producer of book at bedtime whose parents live in Chester; and Ruth, my editor's new assistant, Laura, who is Henry's, Henry himself who is my publicist, Carole, my editor, Jocasta who used to be my publicist but who is now an editor; Philippa and Sheila from AP Watt; a Dutch agent; a French agent; several English agents - all of them jolly and lively.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Publisher's Party

Been invited to 'celebrate spring' with Jake Arnott, Jill Dawson and Alexei Sayle tomorrow. This is a rare event and looking forward to it very much - as I mentioned last week, I don't get out much...

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Crime Fiction Reader

I am adding a link to Crime Fiction Reader - a very interesting blog on everything to do with Crime Fiction. I particularly recommend the post about the British Book Awards (Nibbies) Ceremony yesterday.