Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Short Interlude

Bag almost packed, computer almost ready for London and the Nature blogging conference in the morning. Of course I shall be taking my camera and shall be reporting back (in much detail!) some time next week. A few days ago I was wondering why I was doing all this, but tonight now that everything is almost ready I am really looking forward to meeting everyone.


I really love this story from the BBC and admire the man's persistence.

A note for any American readers: 'pants' over here does not mean trousers - it means (usually women's) underwear and is a mild term of abuse meaning inferior quality.

I would also like to note that the word 'panties' has another meaning entirely and to my mind has slightly smutty connotations, especially when applied to the underwear of an adult woman, and should not be used.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Tired, tired, tired...thinking about going down to London for the Nature Blogging Conference on Friday and wondering if I can face the five hour journey there... and the five hours back again...

And wondering too why I do things I do...the hundreds of thousands of words on this blog over the last three years, and the frantic rushing around. I suppose because I want to belong somewhere. It is what every human wants.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Beijing: An Alternative Scenario

After the fireworks, after the marching of the thousands, the Bird's Nest Stadium becomes dark.  There is  short wait for silence but it comes.  A child whimpers briefly.  A piece of paper rustles and then is still.  A mobile phone is quickly turned off by its owner.  Billions of people all around the world hold their breath.  It is as if the planet has stopped.

Then: a single light.  It is white, brilliant, a thin beam.  It seems to be lighting nothing except a small scrap of floor.  

Then: a sound.  A note that is as sharp as the pin-point of light, and the circle on the floor widens.  Now, another light joins the first, and simultaneously another note begins a short vibrato : blue and then green, a couple of tones higher and then lower.  All is harmonious; the lights and then the music dancing around this small shape on the floor.

A timpani drum crashes suddenly, loudly and magnificently, and the floor below opens up. Standing there is a woman in a long red dress.  She is not particularly beautiful, but her smile makes every mouth around her ache to smile too; her hair is dark-red and her skin is pale and freckled, and her teeth slightly bucked.

When the note changes to something higher she takes a breath and begins to sing.

She has been training for years for this moment.  Just as the athletes have been running, jumping and swimming, so she has been performing athletic feats of her own.  She knows how to make her throat move infinitesimally slowly, and she knows how to expel every last molecule of air from her lungs.  One note buds, unfurls, and flies from her: a flower into a dove, a rain of petals into a ticker-tape parade of paper.  And the world listens.  It is powerful and pure and it fills Beijing.  

Then the song stops and becomes a murmur, and the light dims and spreads until it catches an old man standing in the shadows.  He is a runner, a former athlete.  He would have liked to have run for China but spent his most vital years 'elsewhere'.  Even though he doesn't run any more he practises Tai Chi every morning in one of the city squares and is lithe on his feet.  He is not carrying a football but a large paper lantern.  

He chirrups a question and she answers.  He asks another and she replies to that too.  It is a conversation without words.  When she answers the last question he nods sadly and holds out the lantern.  Everything must end.  For a few seconds their hands touch, and to the people in the crowd the lantern seems to glow more brightly.  They wonder if they trust their eyes.  Then the man's hand drops to the side and the woman holds the lantern above her head.  

The music fades away again to silence and the woman removes the paper covering.  Underneath is a single white candle.  

Then the light dims too until all that is left is this candle glowing faintly but still quite visibly, and then music again; sweet soft and enduring.  

That is how I would have answered the magnificence and excesses of Beijing: with something very simple, pure and authentic that would have cost very little.  

As far as the UK contribution to the Beijing closing ceremony is concerned...

...this piece by Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph expresses my feelings exactly.  

(I wanted to give my own take yesterday, but unfortunately I couldn't get onto blogger).

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Papillifera papillaris: a tribute to the cunning of the Italian immigrant snail which hid undetected for over 100 years in the Cliveden marbles

Oh mamma mia, we are undone!
Which one of you blabbed?
We burrowed and ate.
You came and looked.
A nice little racket.

Sure, it was cold.
Sure, we made holes.
Sure, we shouldn't really have ever been there.
But overall
you have to admit
our ice-cream whirls
and tutti frutti exteriors
are just as pretty
as any native periwinkle.

(With thanks to Dave Lull for drawing my attention to this story)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Happy Birthday Blog!

I missed my blog's birthday, yesterday. Three years old! Happy Belated Birthday blog.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Still summer

It is 8 am. Still summer, allegedly. A grey sky and subdued light. The pavements outside have that almost dry look. A temporary state.

I have read little over the past few days. Instead I have been working on my talk for the Nature Conference 'Blogging and Creativity'. Yesterday I practised giving it to Hodmandod Senior and it was so bad I felt I had to start all over again, which I did. Now I think it is much better.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The X Site, Rhydymwyn.

First they mined lead here: for hundreds of years men dug deep tunnels under the nearby hills. Then they came to do something more sinister and dangerous: the tunnels and caves were hollowed out to form vast cavernous stores; shutters were replaced by these great steel doors, and the place was fenced off and patrolled with security guards. This small valley in north Wales - a place now of trees, lush grass, foxes, otters and badgers - not so long ago produced the means of our own self-destruction.

There is something mysterious and attractive about tunnels and caves. Maybe each of us has a troglodyte inside us. The doors have to be secure, the guide said, otherwise people get in and it's not safe.
'What are they expecting to find?' I asked.
He shrugged. 'There's rumours... Stupid things like the crown jewels were kept here during the war. Maybe they're hoping something was left behind.'

The stores are empty now and no one goes in except for a couple of times a year when a builder comes to inspect the roof and make it safe. Over the years the concrete crumbles and metal rusts. Ground water trickles down and sometimes becomes a torrent. Here, where men attempted to control nature, they are now tentatively allowing it back; but only on their terms - the ground water is piped into a wetland rich in wild life, and the grass once mown is rolled into vast short cylinders to provide warm winter quarters for snakes.

After the mines came something else, and and it is this that drew me here: just before the second world war ICI (which used to the main chemical company in the UK) was encouraged, or commanded, I'm not sure which, to produce millions of shells of mustard gas. Since their works in Runcorn were too vulnerable they looked around for somewhere else suitable fairly close. This valley, with its infrastructure of mines and associated works, seemed ideal.

To the existing buildings they added more. Some of them still stand, others have subsided into grassy mounds, but altogether there were dozens of brick-built workrooms. Some of these made the mustard gas, while further along, in the section known as the danger area, the mustard gas was put into shells and primed with explosives. This was done in several small buildings, rather than one large one. This was common practice for explosive work, my guide said - if one exploded, the others could just carry on.

The shells were then distributed around the country ready for action. As production built up there were well over a thousand workers here.

Today there is no one except three men employed by DEFRA (a government agency) to generally manage the place, and a group of wildlife specialists who monitor the plants and animals. As we walked down the track a thin fox stepped out in front of us and a buzzard flew off silently from some trees. Six decades ago it would have been noisier and more crowded; brown-uniformed workers would have periodically spilt out, perhaps in response to bells and sirens, to go to the cleaning and toilet block, the changing room or canteen...

...or hurry for shelter. They would have worn tracks with their many feet. The grass would have been short. The asphalt, now rippling and breaking with age and the effects of too many hot summers, would have been new, gleaming, black. It was a special spark-free sort, and the hammering, scraping and sawing around us would have come from spark-less copper tools too.

Further along we looked for grass-snakes under pieces of tin-roof in the grass but just found scurrying ants heaving around their out-sized eggs. Beside us was the river Alyn, regimented by concrete, diverted from one course to a more convenient one, disappearing underground to emerge the other side of the compound, outside the fence - a home to kingfishers and otters.

Near to the river were the remains of a small railway station, and a platform and shelter for unloading. The guide thought it was just the charges (not people) that came this way, brought in from a small battery up on the hills.

Close by were two brick shelters that had been cleared out so we could go inside. When the Germans had invaded France they could bomb further to the west, and Liverpool, just north of here, was targeted. On their return flight they were liable to discard any unused bombs and so the workers here would have to take shelter too.

The small recess in the corner would have had a curtain hanging over it, and a chemical toilet inside. About fifteen people each side would sit in here on benches against the wall for hours during raids. For a few moments we stood in silence. Is this how they too would have waited - intensely listening for the planes to whine close and then whine away again? Maybe with each distant thud in the Liverpool docks they would have shifted slightly on their hard seat, and the faint smell of explosive charge, sweat and mustard would rise again from their clothes, and then the stronger, more pungent smell, of whatever was behind the curtains.

The paint on the walls would have been fresh then, today it just flakes away: egg-shell blue, greens, creams, whites, and then, picking out the outline of the housing of the slam doors, the remains of black and the black-out.

This was how the Rhydymwyn started the second world war, but by the end, the site would have made another deadly contribution: around 1942 they started a process to enrich uranium here. It was the British contribution to the start of the Manhattan Project. Even though this building pre-dates the project I think it looks sinister with its blank walls and concrete towers.

Trees grow here now and split the masonry apart. Alder and ash sprout as quickly as dandelions and soften edges with young fern-like branches. The job of the men here is changing from building maintenance to nature regulation as they are instructed to stand back and let it happen. Sand Martins swoop for insects. Recently a rare kind of red-veined dragon-fly has been spotted and its discovery recorded - the most northerly range of its species. If someone finds an adder here it will be designated a site of special scientific interest, and my guide doesn't relish the restrictions that would bring.

Meanwhile some of these particular walls would no doubt tell some of their secrets to a chemical detector or perhaps a geiger counter (ADDED LATER 27th August) although I have since been told there is no evidence that radioactive material was used at the site, but there is much that is in danger of being lost.

In the village a ninety-year old woman remembers working here, but is not able to tell anyone much, my guide says, except that she poured something from something else, according to instructions, and periodically important men would come; government officials and scientists in suits and glasses.

In the visitor centre there are photographs. Scientists in an assortment of ill-fitting white coats stand outside their buildings - which look only slightly less ramshackle than they do today. There is a single photograph of their laboratory - a selection of rubber tubing and cylinders on stands against white tiles.

It is tantalising and I would like to know more. The chemists, my guide said, lived in houses bought by ICI for them in the village. Around here, and over other areas of the country ICI had power and great wealth. When we first moved to the north-west it owned small hotels and financed interesting and charitable schemes. To my parents generation 'the works chemist' was a position of prestige. I imagine them as slightly aloof members of the community - like the village doctor and the vet.

Now, of course there are no chemists, and ICI is gone, bought out this year by a company that also owns Nobel. For some time both Hodmandod Senior and I were employees, but gradually the different components were sold and, very often shut down. The UK has turned its back on manufacturing as it embraces the information age so I have found that my own fascinating discipline, chemistry, is becoming somewhat redundant in its own right (although useful in other ways). Considering much of what chemists did, and what they represented, certainly in this valley, I do not regret some of their passing.

After the war these millions of shells of mustard gas were dumped. Some of it (not much I hope) was found here in this marked section of ground in the mid-distance.

A lot was dumped in the Irish sea and once, embarrassingly, was washed ashore. Eventually, and with the help of bleach, mustard gas degrades to something less harmful, a lot more quickly than uranium.

Bearing in mind all this, it is strange what the government decided to do next with this valley - and that was to store food. During the cold war vast quantities of fat, flour were kept here - together with small portable ovens for making bread. In the event of war the nearby town of Mold would have been fed with these supplies for a couple of weeks. Apparently there were similar depots throughout the country. The thought is chilling. Later the flour and the fats were replaced with crates of biscuits; one sweet, and good to eat, the other not - but edible with jam. They were hard, I guess like those Italian biscuits that take a long time to soften in the coffee, and were so packed full with 'essential nourishment' that a couple of would keep someone going for a whole day.

Nowadays, apparently, they would simply commandeer Tesco and people would be rationed with supplies from that.

(Update: The totem pole above is a piece of artwork commissioned by DEFRA which depicts the various interesting facets of the place: here you can see the wild-life, the mills, the works, and finally, on top, the Welsh dragon).

I found the whole place so fascinating that I have joined the local history group to find out more. I think it is important that the history of a place like Rhydymwyn is not lost, and I'm glad there are societies working together to prevent this happening. You can see more about the place, including old photographs and plans of the tunnel, here.

I first learnt about this place on the consistently excellent BLDG BLOG and find it strange that a blog written in Los Angeles should direct me to a place I'd never heard of on my own door step.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Good morning, so far...

The postman delivered this little lot of goodies early this morning:

(i) THE BOY WHO WENT AWAY by Eli Gotlieb

(ii) a compendium of Henry Green novels - LIVING, LOVING, PARTY GOING (you know how sometimes you keep hearing the same name recommended again and again...? I think Eli Gotlieb's recommendation was the final straw, which brings me so very neatly to

(ii) FINAL STRAW - another album by Snow Patrol and


and (iv) a little bit of work for me to do (editing someone's manuscript).

So after a swift download I shall be out in my shed for the foreseeable future (or at least until elevenses when Hodmandod Minor usually rises).

First though, I shall be reading at this: a very interesting-looking article on Kafka by P.D. Smith on '3 Quarks Daily'.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Did you know...

...that the UK is the only country that experiences a power surge after a popular TV show (Eastenders) has finished?

I have decided this is because of the British love of tea - and kettles.

(Update : I should have mentioned that this fact was gleaned from the BBC Programme 'Britain from the Air - you can see an excerpt here)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Salon 10 August 2008: An Interview with Eli Gottlieb

Well, fellow Salonists, I am still getting on with GILEAD, but still haven't finished (it's been a slow reading week because I've been doing some writing of my own) so instead I am going to post an interview with an author of the excellent book, NOW YOU SEE HIM, which I finished a few days ago and reviewed here.

I was fortunate to meet not only the author, Eli Gottlieb, but also his UK editor Pete Ayrton, Rebecca Grey, his publicist at Serpent's Tail, and Suzi Feay (pictured), who is the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday. The food was good, and so was the conversation - I had a great time and enjoyed myself enormously.

I was especially pleased to meet Suzi because when my last novel came out the Independent on Sunday published an extract in their magazine, and even commissioned an artist to draw a picture to accompany it. This was a huge surprise (my friend, the writer Sarah Salway, spotted it) and it thrilled my parents (and me) - apparently they just sat in the car and looked at it for ages.

Eli is a very interesting and pleasant man - quietly-spoken and modest. Through Rebecca I found out that he has recently been asked to write the screenplay of NOW YOU SEE HIM, and since he is clearly a dab hand at dialogue I am sure it will make an excellent film. I can't wait to see it.

Eli also kindly gave me this excellent interview, and I am grateful for his entertaining and thoughtful answers.


Eli Gottlieb's first novel, THE BOY WHO WENT AWAY,won the prestigious Rome Prize and the 1998 McKitterickPrize from the Society of Authors. It was also a New York Times notable book. NOW YOU SEE HIM is his second novel. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
EG: Once I went to the Musee de l' Escargot, outside Paris. An amiable middle-aged woman spent just a little bit too much time talking about the sex lives of snails while they crawled around her face.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
EG: Meeting my parents at the train station in Milan, speaking fluent Italian and wearing a natty new suit.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
EG: Being born was pretty high up there. After that, I'd say it was first clapping eyes on Judy, my wife.

CD: What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?
EG: To quote Meyer Schapiro, the art historian, "the failure of socialism"

CD: If there was one thing you'd change about yourself what would it be?
EG: My metaphysical gluttony. Always, in the realm of ideation, I want more.

CD: What is happiness?
EG: Harmony, proportion, and the absence of pain.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
EG: Pet the dog.

Questions About NOW YOU SEE HIM

CD: Jonathan Coe says that your book is 'most of all about marriage' but for me it was mostly about loss: loss of a friend but also a loss of self. There are passages in the book on this theme which are immediately recognisable by anyone who has lost a sibling or friend and are very moving. Is this based on loss in your own life?
EG: Not literally, no. I think I have a somewhat melancholic temperament by nature, and such temperaments are predisposed to see the present always through the lens of the past. As to siblings, my only one is autistic--the subject of my first novel--so in a way, I suppose I did "lose" him, though he's still quite vividly alive.

CD: How did this book originate?
EG: I had the image of a cooly ambitious female writer and a past-his
prime male writer meeting at one of those art colonies of which
America is filled to bursting. After getting that seed image down on
paper, everything else somewhat unrolled from there.

CD: On the face of things Nick, the narrator, is morally corrupt and yet, throughout the book I found myself sympathising with him, maybe because it is written in first person. Was this a conscious choice - that the book should be in first person?
EG: I've always thought of the first person voice as the literary equivalent of crack--highly addictive and capable of producing extraordinary heat and light. But also very dangerous, when not used correctly. That said, it wasn't a conscious decision, no. The first person was the thing nearest to hand, and I felt, after starting out that way, that it was right for this book. Nick is what they call in writing classes "an unreliable narrator", which was another fun thing to do. The motto? Never trust anybody.

CD: One of my favourite characters was Belinda. How did she come about?
EG: My own opinion is that the origin of character is a mystery. Belinda is one of my favorite characters too, but I can't tell you where she came from really, save to say that she's an amalgam of tough, bossy rock and roll chicks I've known. I used to play drums in a band and knew a few of them in my time.

CD: There are some excellent twists towards the end which are unexpected and yet thoroughly convincing. I was just wondering about how you write: do you have the twists in mind before you start to write, say in the initial planning stage, or do they come later?
EG: No, I don't. Some writers write from a very tightly organized blueprint. I never have. I know how to write towards a certain clarity but I never have the clarity in my head when starting out.

CD: There is little about your life in the biography at the front of the book. Are there any aspects of your life - work, relationships or other experiences which you feel were particularly valuable to you in becoming a writer?
EG: I think the previously mentioned autistic sibling drove me deeper into my head than might have been the case otherwise, and lead to a certain kind of cud-chewing cerebration which is probably useful in a writer. I was fortunate to have parents who loved literature and books--my father was a rare book collector; my mother a piano teacher--and encouraged me from the start. Plus, I was never much good at anything else

CD: Finally, I found that some of your dialogues were of the 'laugh-out loud' sort and an excellent counterbalance to some of the more moving passages on grief. I was wondering how you manage to acquire an ear for this - and whether you have any tips you can pass on to aspiring writers.
EG: I've always thought that dialogue used a different part of the brain than narrative prose. As to your observation that the dialogue offsets the more grief-centered passages, the truth is that both my novels, I think, show a tendency to leaven their gloom with that particular kind of humor which swoops in at the moment of maximum pain and sorrow and undermines the reader's trained sympathetic response. This is both in the great Jewish tradition and part of my personal habit of taking the piss out of own self-seriousness. I don't think there are any particular tips I can give a reader on this. You're either born with an ear for dialogue or not. Your efforts can probably be improved both by sounding the words out loud--the spoken voice is a nearly infallible detector of fraudulent language--and of studying some of the dialogue masters at work: in America, Robert Stone, or try William Gaddis in Carpenter's Gothic. In England, there's always Henry Green.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Old Photograph

One good thing about the internet is that I've been able to make contact with people from my past. It is something I much appreciate.

A couple of days ago, one of my teachers from junior school, Martin Kirk, sent me a set of photos he'd taken from when he took us on a field trip when I was aged about ten or eleven.

It was really interesting to see all those faces from childhood, and interesting too that names suddenly came to mind - names hadn't thought about for almost thirty years: Mr M., Andrew, Ross, Sally, Nicola, Janet, Anne, Sue... and Sue again.

Martin said he couldn't see me there - too shy, he said, or not paying attention, or both. And when I looked at first I couldn't see me either, but then I did, in this one...

...the girl looking forward at the front.

I keep wondering what was going through my head just then, because I guess something was. In those days things that happened seemed to me to happen mysteriously, without reason; for instance in the class before this one there used to be regular tests. Week after week we would be asked 'How many yards in a mile?' and I would never know the answer. I think I expected it to come to me one day like rain on my face. I don't remember being aware of anything much else at all except, even then, I knew I loved to write.

Friday, August 08, 2008

What I'm Doing 24:

What I've been watching:
...well for about fifteen minutes...Not to the Hodmandod taste, unfortunately.

What I'm listening to:
Anjet Duvekot's stunning song ANNA - a song about old woman remembering...'It is 1925 and New Orleans and she is in her favourite dress...' - from her new album BIG DREAM BOULEVARD. Duvekot is such a hugely talented singer/songwriter - I don't know why the whole world doesn't know her.

What I'm reading:
GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson (still...I am very slow).

What I'm dreaming about.
Nothing. I am writing just to please myself... and life is good.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Piraha: a people who do not need to count.

Anything, just anything, draws me in from my shed and to my desk where my computer is on and waiting, and there is this whole glorious world of words and ideas and...generally wondrous things.

Yesterday, for instance, I got distracted by a site on babies with beards (which I worked out later when describing it to Hodmandod Senior was probably a hoax - but very funny too);

Then today I read this via The Edge - a New Yorker article about a people in a remote part of Brazil who seem to be defying Chomsky's ideas on language development. They have no words for number  because they have no need for them. There is no 'tree' of subphrases or divisions either. They also have no art or abstract means of representation.  Everything is concrete and direct. If they can't see it, they ignore it, and they are not interested in anything that comes from outside their world. 

Their language sounds extremely complicated; not only is there a feminine version which has one fewer consonant than the one the men speak, but it depends very much on notes and rising scales and songs, and also body language. This makes recording devices fairly useless when linguists are attempting an analysis.

But enough self-indulgent procrastination - back to the shed.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

NOW YOU SEE HIM by Eli Gottlieb

Eli Gottlieb's book is about loss; not just loss of a friend or sibling, but about loss of self. Nick, the narrator of NOW YOU SEE HIM, was always proud of his status as Rob Costner's special friend. Rob was cool, a cult-writer, a minor celebrity in New York city; whereas Nick was not. Nick was the one that remained behind - a small town man with a respectable job - watching Rob's glamorous life from a distance.

Then, one day, Rob dies and Nick cannot adjust to the bereavement and is changed. Everything - his marriage, his relationship with his parents and his children - begins to unravel as he seeks solace in his other endearing memory of childhood - Rob's sister, the luscious Belinda.

The interplay between these two characters is touching in the extreme. Like Nick, Belinda is hurting at her brother's death, and the way Eli Gottlieb portrays this is as terse as it is beautiful.
'I parked and shut off the engine, but made no move to get out. She for her part simply continued to sit there, saying nothing. After a long moment, she lowered her head. Gently, very consolingly, I placed my hand on her knee.

"Yup," she said simply.

"I know," I said.

There was another long silence.

"It's not," she said quietly, "that I simply miss him like a kind of sickness, Nick, or that I think about him constantly, or whatever. It's the awayness of it that I'm having trouble with..."

"Of course it is, Belly."

"It's like on a basic level, I just refuse the whole thing. I mean, the body was there, vivid, so powerful - it couldn't go away, could it? I keep feeling there's gotta be some way back. I keep feeling it's like he's in the next room, and can't figure our how to turn the door handle and get back in...."
I think I've said this before but for me, what makes great fiction is a recognition of truth. 'That's it!' I want to say, 'That's it, exactly.' And I think Eli Gottlieb captures exactly that feeling of uncomprehending disbelief we all have when someone close to us dies.

That is one aspect of their relationship, but this is counterbalanced with moments of hilarity. Here they are later in the book in a restaurant, and Belinda is playing 'twenty questions' i.e. guessing the features of Nick's life:
'"Wooden fruit bowl on the kitchen table?"

"In fact, yes."

"Ethan Allen in the living room?"

"Philippe Stark from Target, actually."

"When the last time you felt happy to feel your wife's hand on your arm?"

"No comment."....

...."Riding mower?"

"Jesus, self-propelled."



"Have you ever," she asked, leaning back in such a way as to subtly cantilever her breasts into my line of sight, "had a screamin' hot flush about me?"

"Good afternoon," interrupted the resonantly self-conscious voice of the waiter, "might I inform you of today's specials?"'
Eli Gottlieb clearly has an ear for dialogue, but he also has an artist's eye for those small nuances of character, and deftly paints them in with the lightest touch:
'The doctor tapped his forefingers together in a gesture that signalled either thoughtfulness or applause while a single eyebrow, with astonishing independence from its twin, rose and fell...'
Apart from the quality of the writing, I also liked the overall structure of this book - the way it unfolded in the present and in the past, one interleaving with the other until the history of both Nick and Rob is revealed. And that history turns out to be an entanglement that is just as satisfyingly complicated as the narrative itself.

It's an engrossing read, a page-turner, reminding me of the writing of people like Richard Ford and also, somewhat, Patrick Gale, and I highly recommend it.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Science Blogging 2008: London

Just booked my accommodation and travel for the Nature Network Blogging Conference in the Royal Institution, London.

This is going to be an adventure. Not only have I booked accommodation with the London School of Economics rather than my usual three-star hotel, but I have booked a seat on a coach because the trains seem to be in some state of confusion on the day I'm due to be coming back...

More (probably much more) on this later.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Britain from above.

This looks amazing. It is strange how everything here reminds me of something else: the taxis finding a shorter route is like blood suffusing through tissue again once the pressure has been removed; the taxis waiting above airports is like a child scribbling; the telephone network waking in the morning grows like mould on an agar plate. It is as if each part of our biological system is a fractal; the same patterns can be found again in something larger and in something smaller.

Sunday salon 3 August 2008. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

Well, I've had a great literary week, with a short interview with Elaine Feinstein on Monday, chasing after scenes from Alan Wall's new book, SYLVIE'S RIDDLE on Thursday, and on Friday having a wonderful lunch in London with Eli Gottlieb - author of the poignant, absorbing and beautifully-written 'NOW YOU SEE HIM'. I hope to write more about that later - once I have received permission to post some pictures.

But at the moment I am reading GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson. This was a book recommended to me by Adele Geras. It is an unusual book, written in the voice of an old preacher who feels his days are numbered. He meanders on, recounting past events, some of the tales so circuitous that they seem to fold on top of themselves; threads are lost are then picked up and developed a little really does give the impression of age, and also wisdom. There are no chapters, few breaks, there are sometimes references to small events going on around him, but but mostly it is the old man's memories.

This may not sound particularly riveting, but it is. Despite the obvious differences in setting, time and just about everything else, I feel there is a similarity between this book and McCarthy's THE ROAD. In both cases the narrative is unrelenting and the overall effect is oddly mesmerising. I keep turning the pages, and I am not sure why. Nothing exciting happens. The insights are undramatic. I haven't yet come across a passage I feel I need to shove in front of Hodmandod Senior's face and demand that he reads it too...

Even so I read on very happily with the strong impression that I am learning some great truth, which will only become apparent at the end.

I wonder if I'm right.