Friday, August 31, 2007

Town Birds.

A good day today - no rejection emails or letters from anyone (just recently I have been sending off ridiculous half-baked ideas in all directions just for my own amusement) and it didn't rain - well not much. I met some friends for lunch in the middle of town and on the way took some pictures of the canal. The bridge is called Cow Lane Bridge because it was the bridge the cows were driven over to the market nearby at Gorse Stacks (now a car park).

How I love these names. Each one has a history describing human activities that went on and on for centuries until they stopped just a few decades ago.

But the canal is still here - a remnant of the nineteenth century - and the town wall that circles the city - some of it Roman, some just an indication in 1970s concrete - but still it encompasses the city with gates and gaps. There is some of it here in this picture - the red wall to the left by the canal.

But it was something on the canal I came to see. At the moment I am studying birds of the city. With memories of a Hitchcock film I am watching them move and watching where they go. There are some on this mud-filled canal - churned up by all this recent rain -

mallards - the iridescent drake with his entourage of wives - as contented and as complacent as a Mormon chief

and pigeons. As you see there is a city policy on pigeon-feeding. There is a designated area in front of the city wall - pigeons will be fed here and nowhere else by order of the council.

But generally the city-provided roosting place is ignored and like unruly adolescents the pigeons go pretty much where they please.

The white and the brown. The ringed and the unringed.

I have noticed they have favoured roofs and spaces. Maybe they are attracted by grain scattered by some eccentric (with romantic associations with the bird-feeder in Mary Poppins)

or the warmth of uninsulated tiles - or just the easy-pickings of fast-food. As Dilys, one of my friends pointed out, pigeons are beautiful when you look at them closely: the dark amber coloured eyes, the unshowy green iridescence of those neck feathers with the faint blush beneath, the proud curve of a breast, the faint suggestion of a tuft, the neat finch-like beak and the dove-grey feathers. Even the feet- surely their least attractive feature - have a fascination. Each toe is perfectly appointed with a black shiny nail and the scaly pinkness a pleasing contrast to the paleness of the feathers.

Once, when I went to visit my grandmother, she told me she'd show me a secret if I promised to be very quiet. She unlocked the door of her big green-painted corrugated iron shed and we crept in. The place was gloomy with wrapping paper stuck over the windows and smelt of damp coal. In a gap between two old chairs she had assembled a nest from old clothes. When we came close something stirred and as my eyes adjusted to the twilight I could see it was a pigeon looking at us just as seriously as we were looking at it. I remember little else about the bird but I remember clearly my grandmother's face as she leant closer. She was a countrywoman - used to strangling chickens and salting slugs - but for some reason she had taken to this pigeon. 'Ah, cariad,' she'd said softly while we'd peered at the mangy specimen, and her face had softened as if she'd been looking at a favourite child. She'd taken care of that bird most carefully until it had recovered enough to fly away.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dr Grump's Chocolate Experiment

'You want this, don't you?' Dr Grump said. 'You want this very much. Just looking at it makes your mouth water so much that you dare not talk in case you drool. That is so, is it not?'
I nodded mutely. She wafted the opened packet beneath my nose then took it away again.
'Let's try a little experiment,' she said switching off the light. 'Shut your eyes and open your mouth.'
I obeyed because I trust Dr Grump. She is my colleague but also my friend.
I heard the foil rustling, then the sharp snap, and then another snap as she separated the 70% cocoa solids from the rest. There was a short pause and then I could smell it: the unmistakable odour of sweet dark chocolate. Then, as she placed it on my tongue and I could taste it: bitter, sweet, melting slowly to the perfect consistency.

Ah, chocolate. I held it in my mouth a long time relishing it- every last molecule seeping into my tongue and travelling comfortably down my throat.

'Is that good?' she asked.
'Mmmm.' I said. I didn't want to speak.

She switched on the light. 'Are you sure?' she asked. 'Was it just as good with the light off?'
'Better,' I said.
'Well it's not supposed to be.' She said, sounding cross.

I noticed there was half the packet left. 'May be I should try another square with the light on - just to be sure.' My mouth started watering again.

'It'll keep you awake.' she said and walked out, the packet in her bag. Dr Grump can be a cruel, cruel woman.

Monday, August 27, 2007

What I'm doing 10:

What I'm listening to:
Astoria by Isaac Albéniz;

What I'm reading:
Sinai Tapestry by Edward Whittemore
(as sent to me by Anne S. I've been dying to read this for ages, in fact ever since I received it but other books kept getting in the way instead. Anne runs a website devoted to Whittemore called Jerusalem Dreaming. I've heard from several people whose taste I respect that he is a criminally under-read author so I am looking forward to this very much);

What I'm writing
Nothing very much - just doing a bit of research and day-dreaming (actually, I am not supposed to be writing at all, supposed to be giving it a break, at least that's what I've promised. Not sure I can keep this up, however);

What I watched last:
The Piano Teacher
(definitely an adult movie - Hodmandod Senior says he's going to chose the DVDs in future as he hasn't been able to watch the last few I have chosen. I endured - but didn't really get the point of the last half although I thought the initial scenes involving the mother and mature spinster were incredibly well done - hugely claustrophobic and convincing);

What I'm dreaming about:
Starting another book - but not yet, no, not yet...(however much I want to).

Asturias - Isaac Albeniz

A long time ago I used to play the guitar. One of the pieces I used to try to play was about a hurricane. I remember the first part seemed to shimmer and gradually grow in strength as the winds grew stronger. There was a frantic feel about the piece; discordant chords interrupting the arpeggios like pieces of furniture flying around the room, and everything becoming louder and faster until, quite suddenly, everything became quiet.

The eye of the storm, I was told by my teacher who played it almost perfectly. Crickets settled on the reed and the reeds swayed. A drip of water fell from a roof. In a stream a fish surfaced briefly and disappeared again. The buildings settled. But it was a disquiet quiet. There was a sense of waiting for the storm to return - and soon it came.

A small scrap of paper spiraled along the road. Then a tin can. A quiet little tremolo built up into another thrashing chord. Chaotic notes chased each other up and down the fingerboard. The storm had returned.

I loved that piece. Eventually I found a simplified version and every time I played it I imagined myself in a hot place waiting for a storm. I suppose I felt that for a short time I was escaping. It was part of my endless quest to move from wherever I happen to find myself now.

I remembered it today because yesterday I heard a busker playing that piece in town. His guitar was electric but it was just as beautiful. It was originally composed for the piano in imitation of a guitar and later transposed for the guitar by Francisco Tárrega with Albéniz's approval. Cécilia Sarkozy, the glamorous wife of the new president of France, is the great granddaughter of Albéniz and this piece was played this year on May 16th at the president's inauguration. And here it is again...Asturias by Isaac Albéniz played expertly by that master of the guitar - John Williams.

Another Cecilia - it is a name I seldom hear but this connects this post with my previous one. There is another connection too - Albéniz travelled widely in South America in his youth and was much influenced by Argentine music in consequence - and the film biography of his life was made in Argentina. It's strange how often the apparently most distant things turn out to be connected.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

My Patagonian Characters.

I am just putting my characters from my book back in their box but before I do I thought I'd introduce my companions of the last few years. I found these pictures in archives and they are photographs of people who really emigrated to Patagonia in the mid-nineteenth century - but of course I have given them new names and invented new characteristics. I suppose it is a form of identity theft.

This is Silas Jenkins - my main protagonist. The story is told from his point of view in the third person. He is about 38, gingerish, with blue eyes and about 5' 9". He's resolute, fairly taciturn and married Megan about eight years ago. For a short time he was happy running a small holding but then everything went bad and he was forced, through poverty, to sail on the Mimosa with his family. He loves to sing and feels most things intensely.

The love of Silas's life is Megan aged 30. She is pictured here with her daughters Myfanwy and Gwyneth. Her eldest son child, Richard, has died on the voyage over the Atlantic. Gwyneth was born a fortnight later (all of this is based on the records of a certain family that emigrated to Patagonia. They were also called Jenkins and I met one of their descendants when I went over there in 2004).

This is Megan's brother, Jacob Griffiths. He is aged about 32 and a Congregational minister. He's a large man, 6' with pale green eyes and a blusterer.

Edwyn Jones is Silas's adversary. He is the leader of the colony and with his wife, Cecilia, tried to prepare for the rest of the colonists in advance. He is, perhaps, the most interesting character. He believes passionately in the idea of Patagonia as a promised land for the Welsh. He has a powerful persuasive voice and is a smooth political operator. He is about 35 years old with mesmerising blue eyes.

Cecilia is Edwyn's loyal but fragile young wife. She is only 25 and guarded and quiet. She finds the Patagonian adventure more difficult than she anticipated.

The Jones' partner is Selwyn Matthews. He is the son of Welsh immigrants to Wisconsin, but has agreed to come south because he is interested in preserving Welsh culture and Language. This picture was taken when he was older. In my book he is only about 30 and is large, strong, quiet and shy.

Here is the the James family. Along the back John, the father who is a shepherd, then the three older children Ieuan, Miriam and Joseph with the mother Mary at the end. The members of this family, especially Mary and Miriam, are Silas's friends and allies.

The other very important character is Antonio. He is aged about 56 and lives a nomadic life with his wife, Seannu, and her sisters Trecca and Mareea. As a child he was sold to an Argentine rancher then escaped back to his tribe whereupon he was called to be a shaman. He subsequently became an outcast when he was thought to have put a curse on the chief's mother which killed her. He has his own voice in the book with the main narrative chapters interspersed with Antonio's story told in the first person.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Out with the old, in with the new...

In some ways I hate to finish a book. Almost immediately I begin to miss the characters and the setting. Never again shall I know them so intimately. I get a similar feeling when I read a good book - but it is more intense when I finish writing a novel.

The only answer is to start on something else. So today I emailed a doctor at the local hospital. I am hoping he will allow me to shadow him so I will understand what it is like to be him - then part of what he does will be part of a character in the new book I have planned. My editor suggested that I try something different - so from nineteenth century Patagonia I am going to a hospital in twenty-first century UK.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What I'm Doing 9:

What I'm listening to:

Summoning of the Muse by Dead Can Dance.

(I've posted this YouTube clip for the music rather than the images).

(This is from the album Wake . This group recommended by Andrew and Crystallyn. It's very addictive music - something that fascinates more each time I play it - the lead singer has a voice just like a bell);

What I'm reading:
Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland
(seems to be a hybrid of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and the Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Enjoying it so far. The writing is very accessible - which it has to be, I guess, since the narrator is an eleven year old boy. This was short-listed for the Man Booker so I have high expectations);

What I'm writing:
A final, final edit following suggestions from my 'reader' (Hodmandod Senior);

What I'm Wearing:
Pink striped linen trousers, white linen kaftan top, lavender cardigan and pink shoes
(which looks as dreadful as it sounds. I am feeling a bit cold - even though the sun did try shining briefly today);

What I watched last:
Snow Falling on Cedars
(which I loved and now want to read the book - but highly recommend the film);

What I'm dreaming about:
Starting my PhD in creative writing - now postponed to January (bit disappointed about this).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Happy Birthday Blog!

Debra Hammel has just pointed out that this blog is two years old today. Furthermore I have just finished the redrafting of my novel so an extremely auspicious day all round. There is only one way of celebrating this sort of thing in the Hodmandod household...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What I'm Doing 8:

What I'm listening to:
(The Georgian Entry for the Eurovision Song Contest - something about this clip I find quietly euphoric - I love the mix of what I think is folk tale, culture and strange exotic location);

What I'm reading:
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
(which comes highly recommended by everyone);

What I'm writing:
Still editing my novel
(and hope it's getting better);

What I'm Wearing:
Terracotta linen trousers, brown sleeveless shirt, lots of shell jewelry and a lacy thing that is half shawl half cardigan because it is not particularly warm any more - summer, such that it was, now seems to have gone);

What I watched last:
Jeff VanderMeer's short film
(which you can see here - to go with the paperback launch of his excellent book, SHRIEK. This is an extraordinarily complete vision of an imaginary place - beautiful, and at the same time strange and exciting);

What I'm dreaming about:
Finding a new Muse.

Where I went last:
To my friend Irene's house for Book Group. We discussed THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES by Stef Penney which we all thought was OK but slightly mystified why it has won so much praise.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


We have had guests, hence the paucity of posts. Tonight, at the end of our meal, I lit many candles and we basked in their glow...

I like candles, especially the scented sort. These were an assortment of vanilla, cinnamon and cloves - although the perfume seems to come mainly after they have been extinguished. Maybe all the delicate aromatic molecules are converted into something smaller and more robust in the flame, and it is only when this is gone that they can diffuse around the room with the smoke.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Thoughtful Blogger Award

I come back from a weekend break (to find my inner karma, locate all chakra points and generally tidy up the house) to find that I have been awarded a thoughtful blogger award by one Richard Madeley who manages to fit in blogging alongside his very hectic schedule of starring in his own daily chatshow alongside his wife, Judy. Obviously I feel hugely honoured and a rather dreary Monday morning now feels so much brighter.

I now have to nominate six blogs of my own for the thoughtful blogger award so I am going to nominate the last six bloggers who posted comments on my blog - thank you very much for visiting.

They are:

Lee, Susan, Anne, Jan, Dick, Susaganlique and Crime Fiction Reader.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

BLIND LIGHT by Antony Gormley 3

Just posting this rather good video on BLIND LIGHT...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Sometimes he wakes on the edge of a precipice.
If he were to jump it would be the end of everything.
Oh, but he dreams about jumping.
The cold air about his ears.
The voices of people he thought he knew
pushing at his back
and that one glorious second
of spreading out
...letting go.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

What I'm doing 7:

What I'm reading:
The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban
(as recommended by Anne S - and it wonderful, wonderful);

What I watched last:
Griff Rhys Jones climbing up a mountain in the Lake District on the TV
(inspiring - he is in his fifties, had never climbed before and the piece of rock he climbed up looked like a needle);

What I'm writing:
The absolutely final revision of my novel
...well until next time;

What I'm listening to:
White Blood Cells by White Stripes;

What I'm Wearing:
Yellow vest, blue dress, cut off jeans and trainers.
(HS came home and laughed);

What I'm dreaming about:
Getting my life back to 'normal' because it certainly hasn't been over the last couple of months.

BLIND LIGHT by Anthony Gormley. Part 2.

Sometimes I make a point of looking at the top of buildings; in old towns it is often all that remains of their grandeur. The aspiration of planners is preserved there. When the render was still wet these architects had probably been in the prime of their lives and dreamt their success would never end. I expect they thought that people would look back, remember, admire their achievements...and I do. These roof top ornaments are particularly poignant in cities that had a past more glorious than their present like Liverpool - but in London too, a city which seems to have a never-ending vibrancy (the cranes bear witness to this), they strike me too.

Today, of course the tops of roofs are no longer smooth. They bristle with flagpoles, antennae, radar dishes and aerials...and now, in some parts of London, the figure of a man (they are there in all the pictures but you may have to click on them to make them full size to see).

Is the human brain hooked by the image of a body just as much as it stops and wonders at the sight of a face? If we are capable of seeing a face in the patterns of craters on our satellite can we see figures of people as easily too? When I was young I remember shadows becoming arms, legs and torsos in an otherwise unoccupied room and then later, when I studied art, I would endlessly draw people and try to capture their movements in stokes of my pen.

Anthony Gormley's statues, though, are still. They stand like sentinels. The same mould as on Crosby beach and the effect is just as arresting. Their impassivity is part of their power. Even though they are just life-size

they are immediately and strikingly visible

once you start to look.

And although at ground level they disappear in to the crowd

at the top of buildings they intrigue and then entertain as once you have seen one then others magically appear

as if the eye has been trained.

But then there is this

the man alone on the massive blank concrete edge and it is this image that haunts me. He is just there, staring at nothing, and no matter how much he looks at himself

he is always alone.

All the above pictures (except for the last) were taken on both sides of the Thames close to Waterloo Bridge which leads to the South Bank Arts Complex and the Hayward Gallery - the home of Anthony Gormley's Blind Light exhibition at the moment. The last picture is outside my publisher's office block on Euston Road (and I think that may even be my editor's bicycle reflected in the window).

Monday, August 06, 2007


Outside the Royal Festival Hall on the south bank of the Thames there are walls made of water.

They come and go and

it is difficult to predict

where exactly they will appear

next. Perhaps the best idea is to come prepared

with suitable


The installation is by the Danish artist Jeppe Hein. It first appeared on the site in 1951 during the Festival Of Britain - which was close to a decade before I was born. It looked like so much fun that it made me wish I was at least thirty-five years younger than I am.

That's my trouble - always too late or too early.

It will be there until the 16th September and is open from 10am until 10pm. Fun in the dark too, I expect.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

BLIND LIGHT by Anthony Gormley. Part 1.

In Chester Zoo a jaguar is kept in a large compound with a glass front. The keepers have tried as much as they can to convert the space into a synthetic jungle to make it feel at home: broad leaved plants are backed with palm trees, vines dangle in some breeze caused by a heating system - and, at ground level, there is lots of steam. So much steam in fact it is difficult to see clearly more than a few inches into the enclosure. But stand there long enough and the jaguar will appear without warning. He is suddenly there - his yellow eyes looking into yours. The shock is breathtaking. For a few seconds you look at each other and then, with an impatient and superior flick of his tail, he is gone. In some small way you feel like a jungle explorer coming across something wondrous.

Anthony Gormley has used the same effect in his installation BLIND LIGHT. As at the post office it seems to be obligatory to queue. In fact queuing seems to me to be part of the experience. As you gradually shuffle around the outside of the brightly lit steam filled glass box people appear inside as suddenly as the jaguar. Hands reach out and quiveringly touch the side. Behind the hand the rest of the body quickly disappears into the swirling whiteness: shadow then vague outline then nothing at all. Fingers touch then slide then trace around the wall. Sometimes whole bodies come to join them faces peering out just as much as you are peering in. Eyes stare and then focus. Pressed-together lips suddenly smile with recognition.

There is a notice at the entrance warning off asthmatics and people of an anxious disposition - but I took no notice. There were also camera men and someone holding a microphone to record the reactions of the voices inside.

It is warm but not hot. The steam comes at you quickly grabbing away a little of your breath. It condenses on your glasses in small droplets but this doesn't matter because after two steps inside you realise, with a slight amount of panic, that you are temporarily blind. A white opalescence surrounds you. All sense of direction is lost in the ubiquitous glow. Nothing has depth. People appear and disappear rapidly like ghosts. Voices come and go. You reach out - at least I reached out - inexplicably anxious. I had an overwhelming need to escape - now. But had no idea which way to go. It was not even obvious which was was backwards. Even though I knew I was with about 25 other people I felt alone - and for a moment wished I had someone with me to cling to so we could be lost together. I forced myself to breathe slowly and deeply.

When my hand touched the glass I felt relief and gratitude. I was not lost at all. Ridiculous, I told myself - the box was only about 15 feet (at most) in each direction - what could possibly happen? All I had to do was to keep the wall to the side of me, keep touching it with my fingertips and I would find my way out. I relaxed then and began to enjoy myself. Steam condensed and made tiny pools in my nostrils. My glasses misted more and the droplets merged and dripped onto my skin. People ambled around carelessly knocking into each other - talking and laughing - without the security of the wall, coming on top of friends suddenly and then disappearing again. Sometimes I went closer to the wall and looked out at the people looking in. I was on the other side now. I knew what it was like. Superior. I have done this. I am one step ahead. I could tell them what it was like to be in here. I could smile with my greater knowledge. The jaguar in his pen.

I came upon the exit suddenly. A woman smiled and indicated a space to the left of her. I turned and there was the darkness of the rest of the world. I found myself grinning widely. Then ducking past the camera man I stood near the wall to make notes.

A young man in a red checked shirt stood next to me. I'd noticed him before - the last of the trio that were making the film, occasionally taking a few hurried steps to keep up. We exchanged a few words. He asked me what I thought of the exhibition and I asked him why they were making the film. It was for the artist, he said, in case there was a documentary then this would be the footage. I kept bumping into him again and again and later found out who he was from one of the curators - the artist's son. I am not sure if this is the result of the filming - I suspect not - but there is a very short video here.

Friday, August 03, 2007

What I'm Doing 6:

What I'm reading:
Fiction: THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES by Stef Penney
(hard going but worth it).

What I watched last:
(disappointed by this - Hodmandod Senior and I found it twee and not terribly well acted (especially as it starred the usually splendid Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Miriam Margoyles). Also used every cinematic cliché going: 'Well at least they didn't make the car didn't stutter,' said HS as we watched it rolling out of the garage onto the road...whereupon it did - on cue. Very funny).

What I'm writing:
An appreciation of the Anthony Gormley's exhibition BLIND LIGHT
(which I highly recommend).

What I'm listening to:
O by Damien Rice
(as recommended by Crime Fiction Reader and finding as fabulous as she says it is)

What I'm dreaming about:
The sea crashing down on rocks and slurping away sand.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Muse

I have been thinking about my 'Muse'. My Muse used to be my agent; I used to write for her but now that we have parted company I guess my Muse has to be someone else.

Patricia Duncker has a good section on this in her novel HALLUCINATING FOUCAULT. According to one of the characters in her book, an author called Paul Michel, '...the Muse functions as collaborator, sometimes as antagonist, the one who is like you, the other over against you...' The Muse is the 'other voice' - the voice the writer hears somehow as he writes. The Muse is also, according to this character Paul Michel, the person who first reads the work, which when I think about it generally tends to be the author himself.