Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Day in Manchester Library

Manchester: 9am. I walk down the small hill to the road commonly known as 'Oxford Road' but is actually labelled 'Oxford Street' wondering if this slight confusion is unique to Manchester, and if, in some obscure way, it matters. I decide it probably doesn't. St Peter's Square is just a short way away - a place I saw last just three months ago - and for a while just look at it thinking about how much has changed.

It was warm then - still mid-summer - my mother-in-law was still in her house, her handwriting still strong and purposeful, but then one day something happened. Hodmandod Senior saw it in some diary she left open around the place. Bold upright strokes became fainter, no longer keeping to the lines and the sense of them changed too. 'I don't feel right. I don't feel well today...' Shortly afterwards she rang - and kept ringing - waking us up, disturbing us at night, a sense of anxiety about nothing she could name - except nothing felt right; and, as it turns out, she was right.

Now she is in the hospital down the road: a stay in a rehabilitation home in London was followed by a stay in a home for the elderly nearby. She stopped eating then drinking and then was admitted to hospital with kidney failure. Last week we thought her end had come but astonishingly she recovered. Since then she has stopped making sense. Each time Hodmandod Senior visits it is as if it the first time; a perpetual Groundhog Day. She asks for her husband and her mother and has to be reminded again and again that they died long ago. This she accepts with equanimity. She turns away, becomes distracted by her bed linen, holds it up and declares she is going to use this to make...but her voice fades away. Then, when she turns back, everything begins again.

But I didn't mean to talk about that. I meant to talk about today. Manchester library: the glorious domed building opened in 1850 when learning was something precious and revered; when it was accepted that learning was good for its own sake.

Nowadays there has to be a purpose. Everything has to make a profit. Books have to sell otherwise they are discarded within in a year.

There is little pride in a beautiful ceiling

or a finely lit staircase.

These desks apparently are 'listed' (good!). Sometimes I wish some of the other values of the Victorian library were 'listed' too.

This day was a follow-up session to the one that I went to in Liverpool in September 2005. Unfortunately nothing came out of that at all. However, 12 writers agreed to persist in helping the librarians think of events to entice more readers into the library and I believe we came up with some grand schemes. From 10am until 4pm we worked hard and at the end were thanked for our efforts.

As I stood on the overcrowded train to make the 40 mile journey back I remembered snapshots of conversations:

'Ah, Clare - that library event I asked you to go to - it's been changed. They no longer want you... I should have said.'

'It's vampire novels they're after now. They're really popular. I just read one and it's really good raunchy fiction.'
'Like Buffy grows up?'
'Yes. Bollocks to literary fiction, I say.'

'You know, I was reading some Ackroyd, and there was something in it that reminded me of your work.' (grins) 'That's quite flattering, isn't it?' (laughs) 'I mean comparing your work to Ackroyd's!'

'...which we hope will be of benefit not just to established authors but people like you too - local authors.'

'I went to the gent's just now and was just trying to stab in that code on the door they gave us when this man came along - you know the sort - and he said,"You're not staff. There's a toilet for you downstairs."'

Then I reflected on how writers like me are expected to work for nothing and are not even paid travelling expenses. I thought of what I could have achieved today at my desk and how I'd probably wasted my time again.

Then I came to a decision. Life is short. For too long I have given talks and written articles for nothing. No more. If I don't value myself, I decided, then no one else will.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Athanasius Kircher's Sunflower Clock

I feel a new obsession coming on. I am trying to keep it at bay. It is a monk called Athanasius Kircher who lived in the seventeenth century. According to this very interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, his most elegant invention was a sunflower clock. He placed a potted sunflower in a tub of water and then stuck a needle in its stem. As the sunflower followed the sun the position of the needle would move and point to the relevant hour on the scale on the outside of the tub.


Bloglines part 2

Bloglines has decided to start working again. Some blogs are now registering over 100 posts for me to read. It feels somewhat overwhelming...

Monday, November 27, 2006

Snail Telegraph

I received notice of a rather attractive idea for a telegraph involving snails from Debra Hamel today. The theory depended on the (completely unproven and crackpot) idea that when two snails mate (an engrossing process which I have described elsewhere) they become telepathically engaged with each other and, in the romatic tradition of a pair of separated identical twins, are able to feel each other's pain and sensation. So that if 26 or more pairs of snails are collected together, encouraged to fornicate (not sure how this is done - do snails have pheromones, I wonder) and each pair labelled with letters from the alphabet, then on separation each snail will empathise with the movements of its partner. Arranging one set of snails into a message will therefore cause the corresponding sets of labelled snails (by this time far away) to arrange themselves in sympathy and so the message can be observed.

Obviously this will work. No doubt about it. The story first appeared on the fascinating website of the proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society which specialises in looking at all things weird and wondrous and sounds like a very attractive place to me - and one which I intend to visit often.


As I have (somewhat obliquely) mentioned before I am now the proud owner of TWENTY-SIX LIES / ONE TRUTH by Ben Peek which has just been published by Wheatland Press.

I have been following Ben Peek's blog for some time (after he guest-blogged for Jeff VanderMeer last year) and for me it is one of the funniest and outrageous places on the web. It is through his blog that I came to hear of his book; in fact it is through the blog that the book exists at all. In fact the genesis of TWENTY-SIX LIES is a very interesting internet publishing story - one that I think is best told by the writer himself...

About Ben Peek.

Ben Peek is a Sydney based author. His fiction has appeared in the Australian Year's Best, Leviathan, Polyphony, and Agog! anthologies. He has also appeared (or will appear) in the magazines Aurealis, Ticonderoga Online, Full Unit Hookup, and Fantasy Magazine, while his
reviews have appeared on Strange Horizons. A dystopian novel, Black Sheep, will be released by Prime Books next year. He's currently pimping his autobiography, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, released by Wheatland Press.

The Interview.

About the book...

CD: I'd just like to say that I like your book very much - in fact I think it is quite extraordinary.
BP: That's neat :) thanks very much.

CD: I thought perhaps it was a book I could dip into and it certainly works on that level - but I also realise as I read that there is a story evolving here - something hidden with much subtlety which means it has to be read as a whole to appreciate.
BP: Yeah, I've gotten into the idea that you can read books in a multiple of ways. dip in, or straight. I was reading something about how people don't often reread, and I thought, well, perhaps there's something to do with the way that often rereading means you have to reread the whole thing...

CD: It worried me that my posting hadn't made that clear so I have added a little intro.
BP: Nah, it's cool. On pretty much every entry there's someone going, 'what? what's this?' which adds a bit more to the thing, I think. though I do wonder if that means I've just made an obscure, elitist joke...

CD: The book evolved from your blog posts. How did that happen?
BP: Well, basically, there was a meme that went round a while back, where someone gave you a letter and you wrote ten things about words that begin with that letter. Patrick O'Duffy gave me the letter A, and so I did A, and then B, C, D, and so forth. By the time I hit I, a lot of people were really digging it, and Deborah Layne at Wheatland Press contacted me, and asked if I would be interested in turning it into a book. Which is all really kind of wild when you think about it--she was taking a huge risk, both in what kind of book she would get, and how people would deal with that kind of thing. Not everyone is going to dig the birth aspect of the book.

CD: How much is your blog, and how much is other material?
BP: In the end, only about a dozen or so entries survived from the blog to the book, and those got re-written. Given the time and responsibility to create a unified whole that people would (I hope) want to pay cash for, I looked at what I had on the blog as a first draft, and then proceeded to rip the shit out of it to make the book. I'm one of those writers who tries a lot of different things while I'm writing, so early drafts can look hugely different to what the final product is--and this is no different.

CD: Do you think that knowing that your posts were going to be part of a book changed the posts in some way? How?
BP: Nah. I didn't get the offer to do the book until I, at which stage I had slowed down on the posts anyway. They were taking me half a day to write at that stage, and becoming hugely time consuming. I try to keep my blog quick and sharp and with a sort of stream of consciousness flow to the entries, and the original entries were just getting out of hand. So when Deb offered the book deal, I just stopped putting them on the web and proceeded to write the book.

CD: The title seems to me to be an integral part of the book and the relationship of trust between reader and author is a theme you explore in the book. How much is true and how much is lies? (And am I going to believe your answer?)
BP: I'm never going to tell :)

It's part of the book: you don't know, and I won't tell you. At the end, you have to decide just how much you are willing to believe, and how much you don't.

CD: What attracted you to the concept of an alphabet book?
BP: What I liked was the chance it gave me to play with the whole slippery nature of truth in words. I mean, look at the way meaning in words slips and changes and alters--there's nothing absolute and final in them. Every lie we tell is born through our alphabet. Every truth as well.

CD: Do you think that the illustrations are important to the book?
BP: Yeah, absolutely. Without Anna's illustrations, the book would be a lesser thing. She basically created a mini comic for the book, and then allowed me to chop it up and space it through the book to act as a linking device that brought all the various narrative threads together. Ultimately, it's Anna's art that enables the book to become a whole, rather than a set of vignettes.

CD: What are you working on at the moment?
BP: At the moment, I'm finishing up a short story. I've got a couple more I want to start and finish before the end of the year, but I'll see how that goes. I'm becoming a slower and slower writer, I've found, so the idea that I might finish three bits of short fiction before January seems a bit of a hopeful thing. Also, I'm starting a new novel, which will be totally different to this one, and the other--it's going to be all kinds of weird, dark, stylistic stuff mixing bushrangers and westerns, and hopefully I'll have that done by the end of 2007.

Plus, I've got a little dialogue/art chapbook that I'm working on with an artist, and a few other plans around. We'll see. Hopefully it'll all come together, but you never know in this business.

And now seven questions about the author...

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
BP: When I was a kid, my friend, D, and I, we would race snails. We collected them after the rain and put them in a margarine container so they couldn't escape. Then during the day, we'd race them along the footpaths or along out verandahs. We were very poor.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
BP: I don't really go in for that. What I've done, anyone could do that. It's no big.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
BP: I was about 24, and the relationship I was went bad, which is how it goes sometimes. Anyhow, about a week after we broke up, I get this call telling me the now ex-girlfriend was pregnant, which, y'know, such a good conversation. So we did the thing you do when you don't want a kid, and had an abortion, which was all good.
However, you don't get abortions on the same day you have the conversation, and so we had a couple of weeks of the word child being thrown round. After it actually happened, which we were both good with, I found I couldn't shake this word. Didn't matter the reality of the situation, there was that word 'child', and it just wouldn't go away. It just stuck around, the reminder of how my life could have changed, and how both of us had chosen not to go there. And it was kinda galling, cause at the time, I was thinking about quitting my job, had no idea what I wanted to do, hated writing, and didn't much like myself. So I figured the word child had to mean something--it had to mean change of a kind.

CD: What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?
BP: When terminal ill people just want to go home, but they can't. I've seen that a little too many times.

CD: If there was one thing you'd change about yourself what would it be?
BP: Fuck, but I wish I was less emo.

CD: What is happiness?
BP: People buying your fiction. People liking it. A good song. A good gig. A fine book. A nice cold drink on a warm day. A few dead celebrities. Witty people. Email. A day where you don't have to be anywhere or do anything. A t-shirt that says "Live Like Darth Vader."

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
BP: Put on clothes.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Something has happened to bloglines - it is no longer telling me when new posts from some of my favourite blogs. I thought maybe there had been a mass hibernation but suspect that it may be because people have switched to betablogger and their addresses are different.

I have deleted one of my favourite blogs (Snail Tales) which wasn't registering and added it again to see if that works.

The Strange Compulsion

I have accomplished little this week except last night Hodmandod Senior and I went to Jan's very happy birthday party and on Monday I met a friend in Liverpool and had lunch. We talked about how much sacrifice there is in writing a book - not just the research but the way we hide ourselves away and work obsessively. All there seems to be is the book. Friends and relatives are neglected. The house goes uncleaned. We are distracted, elsewhere, in the land of the novel and reluctant to come out.

'Is it worth it?' my friend asked, but the question went unanswered.

The answer is 'no', of course - but we both know we'll do it again anyway.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Hating of Ben Peek

Author's Note (added 26th November).
Look at Ben Peek's blog and you will see that he has written a book. It is called 'Twenty-Six
Lies/One Truth' and with this title in mind I wrote the following post...(I have felt compelled to add this introduction because what I perceived, in the early hours, to be the height of subtle wit seemed, in the light of day, to have rather too much subtlety and not enough wit).

Ben Peek has written a hateful book. It is full of loathsome things like depression, early death and that cold perfumed space in a double bed... and I advise any sensible soul to listen to me now: stay well-clear.

Of course I have not read it - and have no intention of doing so. With some books I find I just have to open the cover and the words come spilling out - they hit me in the eye and I can't even remember turning the pages. I throw them down but they pick themselves up again, lodge themselves in my hands and make themselves comfortable. I squirm and they squirm back. 'This is life,' they say, 'you'd better know it.' Then they do that thing again - forgetting about gravity but remembering instead just that third law and the way it goes - disorder, disorder, disorder - then throw themselves at me so I have to listen.

You have been warned.

Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, written by Ben Peek, illustrated by Anna Brown, and a cover by Andrew Macrae. Buy it from Amazon, buy it from Wheatland Press.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Energy Rating Petition


Someone called Kate has just drawn my attention to this petition to the government.

It is to urge the government to produce new legislation to properly show the energy ratings of electrical appliances. At the moment the highest efficiency rating appears to be A. This is misleading. In fact there are appliances with higher ratings possible now due to better insulation and materials, but shops are not obliged to show them. Consequently consumers are unaware of them.

It is a small thing to change but an important one, in my opinion.

I have just signed it and I hope that you do too.

If you would also spread the word via your blog that would be wonderful too.

Thank you.

Just for the (safety) record...

Hodmandod Senior was sent a safety report at work today which caused him some amusement.

Apparently one employee felt faint during a training session and was taken to hospital as a precautionary measure. There the 'injury' pregnancy was recorded (much to the employee's surprise) together with the name of the 'responsible manager' alongside.

In what capacity the manager was responsible is not revealed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

LITTLE BOXES by Malvina Reynolds

I have just downloaded from iTunes the song LITTLE BOXES by Malvina Reynolds sung by Pete Seeger in 1962. The words are here.

The version I have downloaded is a live performance and the audience laughs every time he uses the word 'ticky-tacky'. I find this disconcerting because ever since I first encountered this song as a teenager in the seventies I have found it to be profoundly depressing - mainly because it seemed to be describing me.

My family's house was one of a row of identical houses, my father was a graduate (although he didn't play golf or drink dry martinis), and he had married, had his trio of pretty (well, not too ugly) children and these children seemed to be destined to do exactly the same.

The song seems to have been used to excellent effect in this YouTune clip which I believe is an introduction to an American TV programme called WEEDS. It summarises exactly how I felt when I first heard this song - a slightly sinister sense of pointless conformity and soulessness.

I think this song caused me to rebel - but like all my rebellions it was half-hearted. I began to write daft little poems about the ring around the woman's third finger being akin to the ring around a slave's neck (as in the film ROOTS that was showing at the time), I would go to art college rather than university, I decided, because this was much more liberating, and I certainly would never ever have children.

Happily for me the rebellion failed in all regards: the rings on the third finger of my left hand have rarely been removed for over 23 years; I graduated from university as soon as I could and had my 'pretty children' shortly afterwards. The house that I am living in now is very similar to all the other little boxes in my street and sometimes it does indeed seem that our particular version is held together with little more than ticky-tacky.

But now I am very glad to be in my little box. In fact I am so pleased with the concept of boxes that I frequently find myself making more. Often I imagine them stacked up in their pastel colours with every painful aspect of my life squashed inside them. I keep the lid firmly on, push them as far away from me as possible and hope the things squirming around inside never become strong enough to force the lid to open.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Marble, wax and paint - making a record

Alison Lapper is a successful artist and in A CHILD OF OUR TIME (a project on the TV which is following a group of children all born in the first year of the new millennium) Lord Robert Winston admired her nurturing skills. At around the age of two her son was wilful. To express his temper he would throw whatever small object that was close to him around the room. Alison would duck and remain patient and impassive, ignoring the outburst and carrying on with her conversation. A year later Alison and her son were shown again. The child now appeared to be transformed into a calm and trustworthy three year old. The film followed them crossing the road together and I remember Lord Winston's voice admiring their journey; commenting on how many parents would show a child as much trust as Alison showed her son - and how this trust was being repaid already.

A white marble statue of Alison Lapper when she was eight months pregnant with her son is now in place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. It is the work of Marc Quinn whose most famous work is perhaps a sculpture of himself carved from his own frozen blood. ALISON LAPPER, PREGNANT will be there until April 2007 when it will be replaced by the work of another modern artist. It is a faithful representation of Alison Lapper's body. It is limbless but unlike Venus de Milo these limbs haven't fallen away by accident or by exposure to the elements; Alison Lapper's arms have never existed and her legs have always been greatly truncated. Yet like Venus de Milo she is clearly beautiful. Her face is passive and calm and to me this statue seems to regard the world with a sympathetic interest. She observes. She takes note and then she records what she sees - either painting by mouth or taking photographs - and in 1995 graduated from the university of Brighton with a first class degree in Art.

She has written an autobiography of her experiences called MY LIFE IN MY HANDS (yet another for the TBR pile). She was born in 1965 and last saw her mother when she was four months old. Until the age of nineteen lived in an institution. She abandoned prosthetic legs because she felt they were merely cosmetic rather than useful, learnt to drive and went to live in London. The statue was uncloaked last year on the 15th September by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingston on a day very similar to Friday's - a grey day of showers and little light. Alison Lapper seemed a little daunted by the prospect: '"I'm going to be up in Trafalgar Square. Little me." she said. But on the fourth plinth she doesn't look little at all. Even though the statue is life-size and only four feet high Alison Lapper does not seemed dwarfed. The sight is arresting, strange and quite compelling. On that grey day in London I wasn't the only one taking photos and peering at the polished plaque to read more.

Nelson is aloof on his column, inaccessible and familiar enough to be ignored. Alison Lapper is amongst us. She demands to be noticed.

The statue is carved from a casting of Alison Lapper. For one day Marc Quinn covered her heavily pregnant body in plaster of Paris and it was an exhausting business, but I expect it ensured a true record of how she was. On the way home I read a book my agent gave me about other castings and other ways of recording the human form - this time in wax. WAXING MYTHICAL is an account of the life of Madame Tussaud by Kate Berridge (like Alison Lapper Kate Berridge is another of my agent's clients). Madame Tussaud's wax works began life in pre-revolutionary life in Paris with her 'uncle' Curtius. They worked to record a visual representation of their times - but these times were a period of great social unrest. As personalities lost popular appeal waxen models of unfavoured heads were removed from straw-stuffed bodies (to be replaced by another head more in mode) in a way that was ominously prescient.

During the Terror Madame Tussaud's skills in recording the decapitated heads were valued as she worked to produce a record and probably helped to ensure her survival. But wax doesn't last. Even it is not melted down in response to the political vagaries of the time it will discolour and will eventually have to be replaced. Madame Tussaud's memoir of her life seems to be equally unreliable and part of the interest in Kate Burridge's book is the discussion of how much is truth and how much is a softened retelling of her history designed to appeal to her new neighbours in English society (she emigrated after the revolution). But one thing is clear - she lived through turbulent times and it is very interesting to read how the wax models of heads contributed to the history in unexpected ways.

I learnt more social history as I went round the Velásquez exhibition (as recommended by fellow blogger Jeremy).

The skill was impressive and it is only by seeing the pictures up close and then stepping back to look again that I think I fully appreciated how apparently random daubs of white paint when seen close-to became the glistens and sparkles of a fabric embroidered with silver. The paintings are placed in chronological order and with the help of a small exhibition guide it is possible to see how Velásquez developed in artistry in the Spanish court. I particularly liked his portraits of the people who were not royal - the dwarf playmate of the prince, the pope (who was notoriously ugly and whose powerful and belligerent character came over quite clearly), a renegade nun or a man who might be José Nieto, the chamberlain of the queen, but no one knows for sure. It is a sad tale. Because the Spanish royal family tended to be inbred (a tendency which seems to be prevalent across the European royal families even today) the children tended to be weak and sickly.

Velázquez seemed to capture this quite perfectly - his deft brushstrokes quickly taking down their fragile pallid likenesses before their stricken genes asserted themselves and they sickened and died. In fact he may have been too successful for the king who for many years refused to have Velásquez paint his portrait, because he did not want to see himself grow old. In the end King Philip IV survived Velásquez by five years. Velásquez died aged just 61 on the 7th August 1660.

By the time I emerged from the National Gallery it was dark and the rain had become a downpour. For a time I sheltered in St Martin-in-the-Field where a small chamber were practising Vivaldi's Four Seasons which I soon found to be too poignant. So I returned again to Charing Cross Road, plunged into the rain and stepped over the little rivers that were overflowing from gutters onto pavements until I reached Euston Station and there I read for a couple of hours until it was time to catch my train home.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A half day off

Today was good. I went to aerobics - the first time for a couple of weeks. I had lunch with my very clever writer friend and swapped ideas. Then he introduced me to a lovely little bookshop I hadn't seen before up on the walls of the city and I bought two books on genetics just because they looked so interesting. I wrote a letter to a publisher. I bought in the week's groceries. I visited my mother-in-law and she was a bit better than yesterday.

Tomorrow I am off to London to see my agent. After that I shall have seven hours in the capital to do with as I wish - I am so lucky. I shall take my camera.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Talk at a Women's Institute

Last Wednesday I gave a talk at a Women's Institute on the Wirral (a tongue of land south of Liverpool that links England to Wales). It is an affluent area for the most part.

At 8.00pm, I arrived at the meeting place as instructed. Their meeting was in full-swing so I sat quietly at the back. Eventually a woman came over to me carrying a black canvas bag: 'The projector.' she said.

It was a strange make. I battled through with the wires and connectors and complicated array of buttons until the thing worked. Then shifted around tables until the image was large enough. After the talk - which they seemed to enjoy - I explained that my books were available at the price I'd paid for them and put a few out on a table. No one came close - except a woman with a cup of tea. Then, for some unfathomable reason, she went to pick up the projector.
'I shouldn't touch that yet,' I said, 'you have to wait for the bulb to cool.'
She picked it up anyway.
'No, really, if you move it the bulb will break if it's still hot - and they're expensive to replace.'
She let go of it again.
I drank my tea then packed away my books and computer. Then I wound up the leads, packed the cooled projector back into its bag and then slipped away without many people noticing.

Unfortunately I think I have another talk with a WI in the next few months but I am not sure when or where. I do hope someone rings to remind me. But if they don't I am not going to mind very much.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

An event in Gent

I might be wrong about this but as far as I can work out there is an exhibition on Women and Madness in Gent Museum in Belgium and to coincide with this very interesting topic Pascale Platel, Walter Van Steenbrugge, Anna Luyten and Jos Geysels will be discussing three books at the Kunstencentrum. These are De blauwe jurk van Camille by Michèle Desbordes (about the life of the artist Camille Claudel which sounds fascinating, although the book doesn't appear to be available in English),

De Steniging by Frénk van der Linden, a debut novel about a woman called Priscilla by an award-winning journalist, I think, and...

98 redenen om te Zijn
by Clare Dudman. Which means I have the perfect excuse to put my lovely Dutch book cover up on my blog again...

I am delighted about this - the publication of my book in Dutch has brought me such happiness in an otherwise bleak Autumn.

This event, which is free, and organised by De Morgen newspaper (whose journalist, Marnix Verplancke, I met in Amsterdam) takes place at 20.00 hrs on Tuesday, the 21st November at:
Kunstencentrum Vooruit
Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat 23
9000 Gent

If only I spoke Dutch I would be there - I'd love to know what they say...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Hodmandod's Haven

Like any sensible snail I have retreated into my shell in recent weeks. It is cold outside and I don't want to show my face. However on Tuesday night my aerobics teacher texted my mobile to find out what had happened. Ali looks after us all to a touching degree - it is just one of the reasons we all think so much of her.

On Wednesday she turned up at my house with waterproofs and her dog, and we went out to the forest to talk about the things that can make the world suddenly stop.

'I like it under the trees.' she said. 'I feel like I'm talking to him.'

It is strange how the death of Kevin has affected us all. He is just a man who came to the class, who was so full of life it didn't seem possible that he could ever die, but he did; one Sunday suddenly after lunch - after a weekend filled with doing what he most loved in the world - aerobics, hang-gliding and cricket.

Now every aerobics session Ali plays his song, a discordant little number by the Squeeze, and every time she does I want to go out until it finishes but I don't. Music, I find, has the most affecting qualities.

Today I went to see my mother-in-law in the home near our house. She looked content and peaceful lying on the top of her bed. It took her a few seconds to recognise me but that is understandable because it is a long time since she last saw me.

Of course she too is a Hodmandod and has a similar tendency to prefer the company of her own shell. She complained that they were nagging her to join the rest of the residents in one of the lounges.

'You don't have to, if you don't want to.' I told her, and she smiled.
'No, I won't. Why should I?'
'I think it is always better to have a reason to talk,' I said, 'a shared interest...'
'I'd like to draw.'
So I promised to bring her a drawing pad and a mannequin and we would draw together.
'And you could tell me what it was like in the war,' I told her, 'and I can write it down.'
'And before that...'
'And your book,' she said. 'I've never found out what's in your book.'
So I would tell her all about that too.

The Home for the Elderly

On Monday night Hodmandod Senior and I visited a home for the elderly close to where we live. Hodmandod Senior's mother has become too infirm to spend any time alone in a house; and she is becoming confused - memories and dreams merging with reality until everything becomes equally unreal.

Afterwards I was discussing with my mother what we found most depressing about these places. My mother's opinion is that it is the television. 'It is always on,' she says, 'too loud, and around it are all these people just sitting there in wing chairs and high seats watching it.'

I think she's right but there are other things too: the anonymity of the rooms, the way the chairs are arranged along the corridor, the cardboard labels inserted into the holders on the door...everything is temporary and has the atmosphere of a waiting room.

As we followed behind the assistant we kept up a frantic chirpy dialogue as if what we were doing was ordinary and commonplace.

'They watch the birds from here.' she said. 'There's a bird table, and though it doesn't look like much now, in the summer, they sit out. They like that...'

We agreed with her that it did look nice: the water feature with the small trickling waterfall that she switched on for us to hear in the dark; the decking; and the small terrace where they sometimes had a barbecue. And yes, we were impressed with the usefulness of the bath seat and the ledge in the shower, and the pull switch and the way the commode looked exactly like a comfortable chair in the daytime, and so very convenient for them to have a door of their own into the garden, and laughed at the story of the old lady who liked a drink and so her family brought in a crate of sherry and stashed it in one of the high cupboards so that she could be issued with one bottle every time they came, once a week...

Once a week. Every Tuesday the hairdresser came, every Wednesday the woman who did the movement classes, only if they wanted to, of course, and two months a woman came with clothes they might like to buy.

'Sometimes they wave at the children in the school next door when they pass.'

Yes, we smiled, as we went past another sitting room with the TV noise preventing all conversation.

'That's where they knit, some of the ladies...'

When we got home Hodmandod Senior phoned his mother to tell her about what we'd seen. 'You'll like it Mum, we're sure you will. We both thought so. Anyway you can come up here to find out.'

I remembered the seats, the old woman sitting in her dressing gown staring at nothing, perfectly happy but staring at nothing.

'Of course the door is alarmed in the evening. Just in case they wander. Sometimes they stop and don't remember where they are.' The assistant had said as she'd pointed at the french window.

Not they - us. Not they - me. Me in the dressing gown staring at nothing.

'Old age - it's horrible.' The superintendent said vehemently in her office afterwards, as Hodmandod Senior described his mother's condition.

Yesterday the superintendent phoned saying they had a place available and last night Hodmandod Senior has again travelled down to London for his mother. It seemed a very good place and we feel lucky that they happened to have a place available. The staff seemed caring, patient and good-hearted and my mother-in-law is going to have a four day visit which may, I suppose, extend to the rest of her life if she is not too confused and the home is suitable for her.

But the thought chills me.

Monday, November 06, 2006

BAFAB winner

On the subject of Australians I am pleased to announce that Anne S is the winner of the first BAFAB contest because I identified very strongly with the central character of Lazy Robert. A copy of the magnificent book Riddley Walker will be transported to the other side of the planet shortly...

A Cure for Cancer: the 2005 Nobel Prize winners for medicine.

My grandfather died before I was born. He was a fit man who was careful of his health; an athlete in fact, and one of my earliest memories is staring at the reflection of myself in the polished sides of his trophies on my grandmother's sideboard. He specialised in the long-distance run - today I think he would have been an enthusiastic marathon runner. He was irritatingly enthusiastic about fruit and vegetables, didn't smoke or drink and yet, by his mid-forties he was suffering from the 'indigestion' that would soon kill him at the age of 48.

My brother Huw also suffered with his stomach. His problem was less severe but still painful - a gastric ulcer. He worried a lot and, in accordance with the popular view, I thought that stress and the overproduction of acid in the stomach was to blame. He was treated with the usual medication; which helped - but only while he was taking it. When my other brother, who is a pathologist, heard about this he told him to go for an antibody test; and when this came back positive the resulting course of antibiotics cured the ulcer for good. The reason that my elder brother could guide my younger one in this way was a direct result of the work by Barry J Marshall and J Robin Warren.

A link from Petrona yesterday led me to a variety of sites where I read about how these two Australian doctors won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2005. Through their dogged persistence and belief in an idea (that everyone around them was ridiculing) they found a cure for gastric ulcers and, consequently, the prevention of cases like my grandfather's 'indigestion' or stomach cancer. I find it an extraordinary inspiring tale.

Food is digested in the stomach by hydrochloric acid. I have always found this quite incredible. Hydrochloric acid is what chemists call a 'strong' acid - when concentrated it makes choking fumes in the air; pour it on limestone and the rock immediately fizzes and dissolves - and yet we have this aggressive stuff in our stomachs. For the most part the stomach remains unaffected. As Aydin has explained in Snail'sTales this is because there is a layer of mucus protecting the cells of stomach walls. The hydrochloric acid is part of the wonderful process of digestion and its job is to chemically attack whatever has been swallowed converting the bulk into molecules which are small enough to be absorbed through the stomach walls into the blood stream. This usually works quite well but sometimes the stomach becomes inflamed (gastritis) or can develop ulcers.

In the 1980s, J Robin Warren, a pathologist, was examining under high magnification a sample of stomach lining from a patient when he noticed something most unexpected: bacteria. When he looked at another sample he found more. In fact he found them in about half of the biopsies. He also observed that wherever there were bacteria the walls of the stomach close-by were inflamed.

When he told the people around him of his find they didn't believe him; the commonly held belief at the time was that the stomach with all that hydrochloric acid was such a hostile environment no bacteria could survive there.

Eventually Warren enlisted the help of a young clinician who was looking for a project, Barry J Marshall; and together they studied biopsies from 100 patients. It sounds like it was a hard slog against much opposition, but they seem to have been encouraged by the way they could actually see the evidence (Warren used a new stain which clearly identified any colonies of bacteria in the gut), and also by the support of their co-workers and family. In an interview Marshall remember a ceramic plate with 'Nobel Prize' one of their technicians made for them; and Warren remembers his wife (who was also a doctor and mother of five children) encouraging him with her consistent belief that his work would be acknowledged one day with the Nobel prize.

Marshall then went on to cultivate the bacteria they had found in the laboratory (which are the shape of short cigarillos with tentacles at one end. You can see a photograph here at the bottom of the page). In an interview accessed through the Nobel page they joke about the naming of the bacteria: they were, they say, reluctant to call it after themselves because there was a suspicion at the time that the bacteria could be sexually transmitted and so they would lend their names to one of the propagators of venereal disease. In the end they plumped for Helicobacter pylori which describes the shape of the bacteria in Latin.

Marshall had difficulty using animal tests to show that this bacteria grown in vivo was the agent that actually caused the disease and eventually seems to have come to the private conclusion that the only answer was to infect himself. To the astonishment (and maybe consternation) of his technician he mixed together a few of the cultures to form a bacterial cocktail, gulped it down, and went off to do his ward round. He admits now he probably wouldn't be so reckless, but I suppose then he had that feeling of invulnerability of youth.

For a few days nothing happened, then he describes feeling full, and then eventually vomiting in the morning; but it was another symptom that drew everyone's attention to his ailment and ensured his admission to his family of what he had done: bad breath. His wife demanded that he take a course of antibiotics so that he would not infect his children, and since he had satisfied the third of 'Koch's postulates' - that the cultured bacteria could cause gasterisis - he did.

Although the idea was not accepted by the Australian medics around them Marshall and Warren did find recognition in the Netherlands. At the time (and this is only in the 1980s) the gastric system was much less understood than it is today and Marshall recalls that there were many different ideas of the processes involved. However the dogma that ulcers are caused by stress was difficult to overthrow - and it is interesting to me that even in the 21st century in the UK my brother was not automatically tested for antibodies by his doctor as soon as he had been diagnosed with an ulcer. It was only because he happened to be related to a doctor that he was saved a couple of months or even years of suffering. According to this Nobel website article published last year: ' It is now firmly established that Helicobacter pylori causes more than 90% of duodenal ulcers and up to 80% of gastric ulcers.' So I hope things have now changed.

According to Marshall this change is unlikely in most parts of the world. The bacteria is an infection most likely picked up in childhood and can lurk, inflaming the stomach but not causing any symptoms, for years. Sometimes this is all that happens and the carrier of the bacteria passes through life unaware and symptomless. In the poorer countries with poorer hygiene conditions it is estimated half the population is infected and a large proportion of these people will develop ulcers at some stage and then, if left untreated, maybe cancer. No doubt poor hygiene was the reason my grandfather, whose childhood became impoverished when his father (who was a sailor) was blockaded into a Russian port during the revolution, was infected. Treatment with antibiotics, of course, costs money and so millions in this world are suffering when they could be treated fairly easily. Yet widescale and indiscriminate treatment is also ill-advised; the bacteria is likely to become resistant then so it is better to restrict the use of antibiotics to those who need to be treated.

The best global answer, says Marshall, is vaccination.

Today Warren is retired and pursuing his interest in photography, while Marshall continues his research. I think it is an inspiring story of fighting for an idea against all odds - and one which has an unusually happy ending. Although I do feel it is rather sad that Robin Warren's valiant wife did not live to see her husband's recognition.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


...despite everything, I can't stop writing. It is a neurological disorder: Compulsive Keyboard Obsession. I have been talking to Dr Grump (whose first degree was in Human Psychology) and she says that if I had any other sort of neurosis she would recommend that I fight it but in the case of CKO the best thing to do is to go along with it. At the University of Uurm they have found no successful treatment. Distraction, cognitative behavioural therapy and meditative practices merely serve to worsen the symptoms.

'Well you've not been much help,' I told her, looking up briefly from my keyboard.
'Sorry,' she said, 'but you do know...'
'Out with it, woman!'
She tapped her notebook with her pencil, frowned and crossed one long leg over the other. 'It's usually terminal.'
She glanced at the picture of Hemingway above her desk: 'Sometimes with a shot gun.'

Author's note: This is just my attempt at black humour. It is not a cry for help.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The BAFAB competition

Thank you all (six of you) for entering. I am afraid the judging is going to take some time because my brain seeems to be not functioning properly at the moment.

The reading and comprehending part is in standby mode as is the part devoted to solving puzzles (although that is a particularly dodgy piece of apparatus at the best of times). Today I gave up working out how to get the cheese out of the fridge without knocking anything over and just shut the door. It just seemed much easier to eat a chocolate biscuit instead.

However I am happy to report that the lobes devoted to the writing of self-pitying but unsent emails, as well as the phoning people for a general moan are working at optimum efficiency.

I would also like to thank everyone who has sent such wonderfully kind words of encouragement - I really value them. As my agent said, 'this will one day seem like a small bump along a long road.' I know she's right - it's just that it feels like an insurmountable mountain range at the moment.