Saturday, December 31, 2005

2005: last blog

Well my mother has now entered cyberspace and has read my blog, so from now on I am going to have to be even more circumspect than I am already and no longer talk about all those night-long visits to Chester's 'houses of pleasure' and publishers' narcotics parties as I did in the past. They have been relocated now but am willing to give any reader the new secret URL address - just contact me using the usual codeword...

Anyway, only about two hours left of old dismal loathesome 2005 which I am very pleased to wish good riddance and hope that 2006 will be better and a good one for anyone that reads this - even those poor reviewers in the English broadsheets who had the misfortune to be assigned my book in paperback and found the experience so very unpleasant (my condolences, you should have read the American version - that turned out to be so much more compelling).

However I am determined to finish the year on a bright note and would just like to mention that someone in England has liked my book and given it a good review . Thank you Stoop. I can't tell you how much.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The 101 Word Story Challenge

I was going to try and write a 101 word story for each of the pictures we took at the zoo but there are too many so instead I am going to post three of the pictures up here in the hope that someone else might like to take up the challenge as well...

The only rule is that the stories have to be 101 words long...

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Penguin

Another 101 word story...

For an ugly duck he had a big mouth. I soon gave up waiting for him to turn into swan.
‘One day all this will be yours,’ he said, pointing with his beak.
But his wing was more like a flipper and he smelt strongly of fish. When I complained of the cold he suggested that I huddled with his relatives who had the same halitosis. He waddled rather than walked and refused to hitch up his pants. When he told me he expected me to mother his dynasty I laughed. How was I to know he really was an emperor?

The Andes

It was the Hodmandod annual visit to the zoo yesterday. We go every year at this time to see how our close relatives are getting along.

It was slightly disconcerting to find that I really didn’t need to go over seven thousand miles to see the Andes as research for my new novel when there is a perfectly acceptable miniature version so close by...


Since my sons have pleaded with me not to post pictures of them on Christmas morning I am resorting to this, a picture of our table before anyone came and spoilt it by spilling giblet gravy, grease and cranberry, orange and port all over it. Anticipation is always the greatest pleasure....

Instead of blood I spilt rose petals -
venous-dark, crimson, spent of oxygen...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Christmas Tree

The Hodmandod Christmas tree is in place at last. It is late this year because on one seems to be much interested. My eldest son came home from university at the weekend so we made the traditional visit to Delamere forest to buy our tree. There are several varieties to choose from and we usually get this shaggy branched type. Delamere Forest is an ancient woodland and rather beautiful with lakes (or meres) inbetween the trees. In the Autumn it is richly populated with fungus and a good place to take students for nature walks, collecting the edible varieties to eat (although I am too cowardly to try this). Once we came across a fairly large Fly Agaric - the gaudy bright red and white spotted variety of toadstool - and got so excited I felt I had to stop anyone who was passing by so they could admire it too - much to the embarrassment of my pupils.

When we first went to the forest for our tree that is all there was - lots of trees, but now each year there is something else as well - stalls selling sweets, then Shire horses pulling traps, a small grotto for Father Christmas with a queue of children grizzling impatiently, then another year hot potato shops and sausages and chips...until this year there was live music, falconry displays, a chocolate fountain, a marquee with local produce - cheese, meat, alcohol, jams, chocolate, fruit and vegetables - as well as the usual display of Christmas decorations. I am not sure I like this: inane music piped into loudspeakers fixed onto trees, car park attendants wearing ridiculous hats and fixed smiles and everyone buying and selling as hard as they can, not missing an opportunity. When we first came to get our tree here about fifteen years ago it was a peaceful place. You could hear dry twigs snap underfoot, there was a chance to see something alive that was sharing the world with us - a squirrel or a mouse, but now everything hides away, shy of the noise.

Still, Christmas changes and develops, nothing stays the same, and so many things remind me of how this Christmas is different from the rest: presents for just one brother instead of two, a card that says 'Season's Greetings' for my brother's widow which I start to write then put it aside for days unable to finish it because for once in my life I don't know what to say, and so it goes on and on...But each time it hurts a little less until I have to tell someone else and it seems just as raw as it ever did.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Origin of THE STORY OF THE INKY BOYS in Dr Heinrich Hoffmann's STRUWWELPETER

Tonight Father Christmas visited our street. He was on a motorised vehicle as a change from the usual sleigh, and he had elves with him collecting money for St John's Ambulance...which seems a good excuse to write a blog on the origin of the story of the Inky Boys in Heinrich Hoffmann's STRUWWELPETER which in the German version features St Nicholas, the predecessor of Father Christmas.

This rhyme is the most contentious in the book and has led to the book being banned in some libraries in the UK. The story goes like this: three boys laugh at the 'Black-a Moor' because he is 'as black as ink'. They are reprimanded by a man in bishop's regalia in the German version (St Nicholas, perhaps) or by a scribe in the English version and it is this man who utters the objectionable lines: 'Boys leave the black-a-moor alone! For if he tries with all his might, He cannot change from black to white.' Which of course implies that to have black skin is inherently less desirable than white - hence the reason for the banning of the book in libraries. The tale ends with the scribe (or St Nicholas) dipping the three disobedient boys into his ink as punishment for continuing with their tirade.

The story has several interesting features. Hoffmann would have been familiar with the legend of St Nicholas the patron saint of children. St Nicholas was a bishop who was supposed to have brought back to life and rescued three boys who had been salted for meat. There are many representations of this story in various European churches and the similarity between these religious images and the illustration in Hoffmann's book is striking. Since St Nicholas was not as well known in the UK maybe he was converted to Agrippa the scribe with his great pot of ink for the English version.

Hoffmann may also have had a piece of German folklore in the back of his mind too - the idea of the 'der Kinderfresser' or child-eater. This is a mythological man who, like Father Christmas, went around with a sack. However instead of giving out presents to children who had been good he collected in children who had been badly behaved, then carried them home in his sack for a nourishing and succulent meal.

In comparison with this the tales in Hoffmann's STRUWWELPETER are quite mild.

Hoffmann himself is unlikely to have ever seen a 'Black-a-Moor' except as exhibits in a fair. He was however a champion for another race which he could see were being unfairly treated in nineteenth century Frankfurt - the Jews - and fought for their emancipation. Within the confines of his time and position in life Hoffmann did what he could for the inequalities he saw around him and these are represented in this story of the Inky Boys.

There is more information on this in the Heinrich Hoffmann Museum in Frankfurt.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The New Regime

'You look wrecked,' Hodmandod Senior declared this morning as I made my usual reluctant shuffle towards the breakfast table. I chose to ignore this sadly accurate comment and remarked instead upon the inclemency of the weather.

'Windy, couldn't sleep, worried, global warming.' I told my single Weetabix, 'Besides - things go through my mind.'

I then explained that the other night I was passing the sitting room on my way up to my study when I happened to see the middle of a programme called 'Honey, we're killing the kids,' in which parents were shown the effects of their decadent and desultory lifestyle on the lifespan of their offspring. It was not pleasant and even though I don't smoke, and do take lots of exercise, read books and try to restrict the intake of fatty and sweet foods in the Hodmandod diet I have to admit that there are maternal shortfalls. I do not take Hodmandod Junior out to clubs any more because he never much liked anything that involved interacting with his fellow Homo sap, and he does tend to follow my example by spending excessive amounts of time on the computer until late at night. The result of this, according to Hodmandod Senior, is my inability to sleep more that three hours a night and Hodmandod Junior's tendency to take the 'bare minimum' approach in his work for school.

Anyway, Hodmandod Senior then drew himself up to his full height (well as much as he could while still seated) and declared (or rather suggested, the Hodmandod pen being a democracy) a computer curfew - all machines are to be switched off at 9.30pm and I am to get up at the same time as him in the morning - 6.30am. This is clearly unnatural behaviour for an owl whose most creative time seems to be from 4.30 - 6.30am (whereupon she goes back to bed) but I am willing to give it a try. 'You'll get more done,' Hodmandod Senior promised, picking his way through my assorted bags and books that have littered the hall for the past few weeks. I do hope he's right.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Artwork without Anaesthetic (or Please don't do that, Mr Squires)

When I was researching early nineteenth century medicine for my last book I came across a fascinating and highly unusual museum in London called 'The Old Operating Theatre, Museum & Herb Garret' very close to the London Bridge Underground Station. As well as the operating theatre, which is preserved as it used to be in the eighteenth century, the garrett contains comprehensive information on the old 'heroic' medicine with an impressive display of instruments and accounts of operations without anaesthetic. It is well-worth a visit if you are passing (and of a twisted and macabre disposition).

While I was there I asked to be put on their mailing list and periodically receive emails about irritatingly-interesting exhibitions (irritating because they are in London which is 200 miles away and I can't afford to visit that often). This one just appeared in my in-box and I have to say that I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT RICHARD SQUIRES IS REALLY GOING TO DO THIS.....!


SUTURE is a two-part exhibition at The Old Operating Theatre, Museum & Herb Garret. An intervention of moving image and photographic work, SUTURE places video monitors and light boxes amongst the amputation saws, trepanning tools, pill-making machines and instruments for the surgical removal of human gall bladder stones and diseased limbs.

Following the success of SUTURE Part One, the Old Operating Theatre Museum is temporarily relocating to the crypt of St. Thomas’s Church where artists Richard Squires and Phillip Warnell present new works in part two of SUTURE…

Richard Squires will present a new interactive multi-media work 'SalivaDriver' in which the artist can be viewed via a webcam-style interface, having undergone a surgical procedure to expose his salivary duct. Utilising the interface the viewer can manage the artist’s salivation.

Phillip Warnell presents two new photographic light-box works: 'Incubator' and 'Calculus'; generated specifically for exhibition at The Old Operating Theatre, utilising the museum’s collection of extraordinary part organic, part mineral artefacts.

The exhibition is accompanied by a limited edition designed by the artists with a text by Lisa Le Feuvre. This is available at the venue.

There will be an accompanying artists talk at The Old Operating Theatre Museum on 14 January 2006 at 2pm: Richard Squires and Phillip Warnell in conversation with Lisa LeFeuvre, writer and curator of Contemporary Art at the National Maritime Museum.


Address: 9a St Thomas St, London SE1 9RY
Tel: 020 7188 2679 Recorded information 020 8806 4325

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Pass the Steak

For the past few days I have been having trouble with my 'mousing' arm. I think it is my body telling me am spending too long at this desk. It is groaning at me to give up writing or blogging or both. However I am unable to comply, sad addict that I am, and am trying to find an alternative solution. During my sessions at the gym I have stretched it, contracted it and made it bear weights and the only effect this has had so far is that it now hurts in a different place. However I am now happy to report that I think I have found an answer - according to this article a good carnivorous diet is all that is required.

Beautiful Minds: Creativity in Science and the Arts

Yesterday's post must be the most boring blog ever - why would anyone want to know what I did in the British Library? However, I am about to embark on its sequel: 'What I did at the British Library day 2'. This is even more exciting than day 1, because, dear blog-reader (if you exist) rather remarkably I read some books! Also I took some notes, but mainly I longed to the end I longed to sleep so much I thought I would try and walk around to wake myself up, had some coffee in the attractive little restaurant and it was there that I noticed that the British Museum had a new exhibition to replace their excellent Hans Andersen one.

This one, BEAUTIFUL MINDS: Capture the Spirit of Nobel Achievement, was presented in an unusual way - some of which I thought worked very well, and some I thought was interesting but also slightly perplexing. The entrance contains glass cases each devoted to this year's laureates, then there is a series of displays around the lower room with objects loosely associated with the prize which was quirky and interesting, and a few stands devoted to the life of Alfred Nobel himself. Apparently he had literary aspirations before he went on to make his fortune making dynamite and he could never believe that dynamite could be used for non-peaceful purposes. At the end of his life, having no descendants, he left his money for his annual prize - for people who had made a great contribution to physics, medicine or physiology, chemistry, peace and literature. Economics was added later. The perplexing part of the exhibition was in the middle of the room - an elaborate display of moving posters, one for each prize winner, with lots of interesting-looking information, but I can only say it was 'interesting-looking' since it kept moving and was too far away to properly see. Beneath this carousel was a table with places set for the Nobel prize-winning ceremony and a cube showing moving images from previous ceremonies on all four sides. Still, it was eye-catching and intriguing and might well entice some people to learn more about the Nobel Prize and its history and winners.

Once, long ago, when I was a young research chemist I was having a discussion with an Italian Chemist at a conference about his many successes in the preparation of certain molecules when he suddenly went quiet and then alarmingly modest. Startled by the change in character I looked around and saw a pale fragile-looking man with glasses listening to the two of us. He nodded to the Italian and then smiled and winked at me then went on his way. 'Who was that?' I asked the Italian who looked shaken. Professor Jean-Marie Lehn,' he managed to say. It was as if we had been visited by a saint. In fact we had been visited by a future Nobel Laureate. One of my colleagues went to work for this man but came back a few months later - 'They work hard and play hard,' he reported back. He looked exhausted.

This idea of working and playing hard was a theme repeated in the part of the exhibition I found the most fascinating: a series of short films on places that have been particularly fruitful in producing Nobel Prize winners in science asking the question 'WHAT SORT OF ENVIRONMENT CAUSES CREATIVITY IN SCIENCE?'. The films were evocative and unusual using the three screens to excellent effect including a section on Budapest featuring the chemist George Olah who was awarded the Nobel prize for his work on carbocations. It is remarkable how many Nobel Prize winners have had to escape dreadful working conditions. Usually this has involved some escape from Nazi Germany (Roald Hoffmann, another Nobel prize-winning chemist and poet is a good example) but George Olah escaped from Bulgaria in the 1950s and so was able to continue his very important work in the states thereafter. Other places mentioned were Cold Spring Harbour in the US, the Niels Bohr Institute Copenhagen, the Basel Insitute for Immunology in Switzerland, Cambridge in the UK, and Santiniketan - a school established in India. The films were all made independently but it was surprising that there was a clear theme common to all of them which answered the question posed above and that was THE SORT OF ENVIRONMENT CONDUCIVE TO CREATIVITY IN SCIENCE IS ONE IN WHICH DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES ARE ENCOURAGED TO COME TOGETHER AND TALK.

So creativity in the sciences seems to have similarities to creativity in the arts. It is the linking together of seemingly unrelated ideas in new and fabulous ways. It is something I have heard called 'defamiliaristation' in terms of creative writing but it can also be applied to science as well. It is the taking of the ordinary and making it weird, new and different.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Spoken Word

It was a cold bright day in London on Wednesday. I spent some time in one of the carrels in the Rare Books Reading Room in the British Library listening to sermons in Welsh, reminding myself how they sounded - the highs and lows in both pitch and volume and the dramatic pauses. There are so many ways to change a voice. I also listened to a sermon in English from the 1950s by Reverend Gordon Franklin on the theme of love. He had such clipped business tones - strangely these had the effect of making what he was describing even more touching and appealing. Then I heard about the early life of Sir David Davies in Ebbw Vale which was interesting, part of a series of interviews about the history of the steel industry in the UK called LIVES IN STEEL. Sir David Davies was an important Trade Unionist, and one of his biggest regrets seems to have been that he left school early even though he'd passed the 'eleven-plus' which would have entitled him to go to grammar school. Listening to him being interviewed was quite funny. He had an old man's tendency to stray from the subject and go into his own reveries, and the interviewer seemed to have had quite a struggle to keep him on track, and then from time to time his wife Else would chip in with her opinion and the recording would suddenly go silent only to pick up again with Sir David Davies talking again.

Since my booking to use the carrel didn't start until 2.15pm I had time to take a walk along Euston Road to my publishers' huge office block - 'Hodder Tower'. There are glass elevators and a large glass atrium at the front which of course houses a Christmas tree at this time of year. I dropped something off for Amber - my editor's excellent assistant who is leaving Sceptre after being there for five years and is looking for some new adventure. I am sorry that she is going and shall miss her, but she has promised to tell me where she ends up next so that is good.

All the buildings along Euston Road are massive office blocks, lots of glass and futuristic-looking buildings and outside each one was a small clutch of smokers intently and silently sucking up nicotine in as short a time as possible.

But the main reason for my trip to London was the A P Watt Author party. I enjoyed this even more this year than I did last year, although I was feeling like I shouldn't go since I felt I had nothing much to celebrate, and I doubt that I would have gone in at all if my agent's assistant, Philippa Donovan, hadn't spotted me so then I had to go in then and I was very glad I did.

I talked to many people but have little memory of much that was said because the wine flowed pretty freely as usual. But I remember laughing a lot which was a great relief and meeting some very interesting people including Michael Cox (and his daughter Emily) whose book I am looking forward to reading called THE MEANING OF NIGHT. It has been sold in 19 different countries and had been lurking inside the author's head for 30 years. It is set in Victorian London and is a type of literary mystery.

I also enjoyed talking to Giles Foden and Tim Dowling - who was very funny, especially when Philippa brought a contract for him to sign in the middle of the party for a novel he hasn't actually written yet. Then, at the end when a lot of the people retired to the Groucho club, I decided to stay on at the bar downstairs and had a good time talking to some more people including my agent Natasha Fairweather. By this time I had drunk much more than the recommended daily allowance of alcohol but even so managed to stagger back up the Tottenham Court Road to the St Giles Hotel, find my room, which was like a cell in an insect's nest, and managed to unlock the door. It felt like a major accomplishment.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


I came across Debra Hamel's blog (deblog) last night (via Metaxucafe) and her idea to pass the book. I am going to look into this - which could very well be the answer to my 'too many books' problem.

Apart from this Debra has some very interesting reviews of books and is the author of TRYING NEAIRA which is about a courtesan in Ancient Greece and which I have just ordered.

It is going on the top of my Chistmas reading list, just as soon as I finish AN AMERICAN BOY (AN UNPARDONABLE CRIME in the US) by Andrew Taylor. I love this book so much I don't want it to end.

My hair is now purple, terracotta and brown, a bit like leaves on a copper beech that have just started to change colour, and I am very pleased with my hairdresser. I had a very happy and decadent time in their little salon - a whole two hours to admit to not having done a thing for Christmas, though I didn't say why, and the colorist solved all my Christmas present problems - if only I could remember what she said.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Too many books

We need to get rid of stuff. The whole family squirrels things away and refuses to let them go. My youngest (who is 15) has a stack of toys from toddlerhood and boxes piled high full of soft toys, lego, games no one ever plays and meccano. The eldest son has a large room which I have not seen inside for a couple of years now, but features redundant pieces of furniture and a large set of golf clubs. It is an inherited characteristic. My husband's den is the garage which is full to capacity with the products of various endeavours to build the world's biggest Van der Graaf generator, an efficient rocket for taking aerial shots of our house, and the on-going project which I believe is to communicate with life on other planets using a series of copper coils, aluminium foil, cardboard tubes and elastic bands.

My own weakness is an inability to throw away books. I just made a determined effort to try and let go of some to take them down to the Oxfam shop in town and only managed to find 5 books that I could manage to do without. I have to try harder.

I also have a rather large pile of my own books occupying the dining room table. I need to do something. There is nowhere left to put the tree. My parents are coming over for Christmas and this is only a few weeks away now.

Meanwhile the quest for happiness continues, but I think that maybe the little unexpected pleasures make me the most happy. Maybe the purest happiness cannot be sought but is found by accident and the best thing to do is to dwell on it and try and enjoy it while it lasts. When I rang my parents yesterday they answered the phone so brightly - my mother planning little excursions with friends, determined that her life should go on. Then, as if she were handing me a baton, I felt happier too. I felt that I had been given permission to be happy, that it was OK again to laugh aloud.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Writerly Promiscuity

According to this BBC website article Creative people are 'luckier in love'. Apparently artists and poets tend to be more promiscuous and attractive.

But probably not any happier, I think. Judging from my friends who have affairs, all those illicit liaisons and deceits seem very energy sapping and I often think that without the faithful mate there would be no creativity for me at all.

However I did find the article a little worrying. Since I lack the Bohemian lifestyle and aptitude does this mean that deep down I am not truly a creative person? All this writing and drawing and painting that I do is just some sort of sad facade and I am not really a true-blood artiste because I am very happy to stay at my desk day in, day out not chasing every pair of trousers that comes my way? The end of the article gave me some reassurance. Some writers, apparently, are driven. They lead the life of hermits. They are solitary beings...all their energy goes into their books. I think Hodmandod Senior would agree with that one - 'obsessed' is a word he used just this morning. And yes, the rest of the sentence did have the words 'you' and 'books' in close proximity.