Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Paris Frock

Well, here is the dress and shrug (with matching crinkles)

which reduces the need for a vest (which would otherwise be essential).

because the weather forecast for Paris is for light rain and a fairly chilly 12 degrees Celsius.

Oh yeah, there's a conference too on bugs and stuff... (heh). Still haven't managed to finish the reading but there's always the plane.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Writing Den Progress: Supplies for power and wall

This morning Hodmandod Senior bought a few choice items for connecting the den to the national grid: cable, cable ducting, switch and housing, chipboard for the wall-panelling , more timber for support,

and also a selection of brass screws and cups. Since I shall be spending a lot of time staring at the walls (when not staring out of the window) Hodmandod Senior is endeavouring to make them as aesthetically pleasing as possible.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Measure For Measure

Just come back from seeing this at Theatr Clywd. It was 'theatre-in-the-round' and the acting was quite stunning. How can something written over four hundred years ago still move me like almost nothing else?

My week

I've had a busy and very stimulating week - meeting all sorts of very interesting and kind people, all of whom have been immensely encouraging and I am grateful to each one of them. Then, last night, in Manchester, I was given this jewel of a pen which had been brought back from India...

It is satisfyingly heavy in my hand and seems too precious to use every day, so I am saving it for special-occasion writing.

And now I have to read a book for the conference in Paris on Monday. It's not a long book but it is involved and quite difficult, so I think this blog may be about to go through a quiet phase...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Old Book

I received this old book through the post today. It was published by Constable in 1926 and the page edges are uneven, thick and soft like sugar paper. Although slightly brown on the outside edges, the sheets themselves are still a creamy white and clean. It smells good - just the dryness of an old shop and not a hint of mustiness. When I hold it to my face the old air wafts from the pages and I am back in Mamgu's house and shelf of old encyclopedias I used to love to peer at in the gloom of her parlour.

Writing Den Progress: New floor

I'm absorbed in my reading at the moment and don't want to come out, so in the meantime here is a picture of my shed with its newly laid floor (on top of the rock wool). It seems warmer inside already, but maybe it's just that spring has come.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Twenty-fifth Sunday Salon: THE MAGIC FURNACE by Marcus Chown

Contemplating the night sky has always made me feel uneasy. It makes me aware of my insignificance. And I think that if Marcus Chown had started THE MAGIC FURNACE with the subject of the stars and the universe I would not have plunged so happily into the pages of his book. As it is he starts with something much more comfortable and controllable: he asks a question to which I think I already know the answer:
'...what happens if I take this stick, this piece of cloth, this clay tablet, and cut it in half, then in half again?' Can I go on forever?'
When I was a child I was given a toy working microscope, which I treasured. I treasured equally the instruction booklet that came with it that explained how I could prepare the objects around me for the lens. It was called 'Worlds within a World' and this idea that there are worlds smaller than my own everyday world of people and houses, and this, in turn, is part of a bigger world, which is part of another, and another, has intrigued me ever since. It is like a mirror reflecting into another mirror, the worlds go on and on in either direction - to the unimaginably small and to the unimaginably large.

The first section of THE MAGIC FURNACE describes the history of the discovery of this smaller world. It is satisfying sweeping narrative, taking in events such as the first breath-taking time atoms were 'seen' using Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy (STM).
'It was as if lightning flickered from the finger of a god to the ground. If he lifted his finger too high, the lightning died away until he had no sense of the surface; if he moved too close, the lightning grew to a painful intensity. By keeping the lightning crackling at a tolerable level, he was able to follow the ups and downs of the terrain with his finger.'
This up and down movement is converted into a visual image by computer to give 'the most remarkable images in the history of science'.

After that the atom is split to reveal protons and neutrons and, most importantly, 'the extraordinary energy inside'.

This leads on to the second section, which deals with what makes the sun the sun and the stars shine. Here all sorts of subjects I thought I knew are connected. It is rather like deciding to walk between stations on the underground instead of riding in the dark in between: this is how Trafalgar square leads to the theatres of Soho, and this is how forcing the sun's light through a prism led to the science of spectroscopy. Everything is described simply and clearly. Because he obviously has an excellent understanding of the topic Chown can eliminate the complicated scientific vocabulary and replace it with the vernacular - suns 'vomit' out gases, for instance. This means that even hugely complicated phenomena such a 'tunnelling' by an alpha particle from a nucleus becomes easily understandable.

The section that ends the book gathers together all the evidence of how the elements are made: it has a complicated history involving the sun, the stars, red giants, supernovae, and the big bang. It makes thrilling reading. Each process is responsible for part of the periodic table and at the end of it I marvelled that we are here at all. I suppose it is possible to either take the view that everything was designed so that life was able to evolve or it is just because of a series of improbable coincidences that things turned out the way they did - and that there is now a carbon-based life-form staring out from a world composed mainly of iron orbiting around a hydrogen sun. There is an intriguing hint that we could be at the end of things, and the reason that we appear to be alone in the universe is that other intelligent life has come and gone.

It makes a fascinating read for anyone who has ever looked out into a clear starry night, however uneasily, and wondered why and how we are here.

Twenty-fifth Sunday Salon: An Interview with Marcus Chown

Last Monday I went down to London to research in the library, and also go to Waterstones in the Science Museum where Marcus Chown was signing copies of his new book and his wife, Karen, was mixing cocktails for children.

Marcus Chown's latest book is a departure for him in that it is not only fiction (he normally writes non-fiction) but also for children. It is called FELICITY FROBISHER AND THE THREE-HEADED ALDEBARAN DUST DEVIL. I read it on the train going home. It is about a serious little girl called Felicity whose day takes a turn for the worse when a patch of her flowery bedroom wallpaper starts wavering 'like a mirage on a hot summer's day'. Rather inconveniently, a Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil has decided to visit earth, and his means of access is a worm-hole ending in Felicity's room. It's an entertaining story for children from about the age of six or seven upwards, I would guess. For more information see Felicity Frobisher's website.

While I was there I picked up a few of Marcus's other books (he has written quite a few and many are still in print after being published several years ago), and started reading THE MAGIC FURNACE as soon as I'd finished Felicity. This turned out to be such a mind-blowing experience that I've had to spend all the rest of the week finishing it. It's a brilliant book, quite literally, about 'the search for the origin of atoms' and I recommend it to everyone - including people who would never dream of picking up a book like that. I've just written a review which I shall post separately here - but it concludes 'It makes a fascinating read for anyone who has ever looked out into a clear starry night, however uneasily, and wondered why and how we are here.'

Very kindly, Marcus has agreed to an interview, but first a short biography.

Marcus Chown is a writer and broadcaster based in London. Formerly a radio astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, he is now cosmology consultant of the weekly science magazine NEW SCIENTIST.

Marcus's books include AFTERGLOW OF CREATION, in the UK runner-up for science book prize and the most-read popular science book after Stephen Hawking's A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME. His other books include THE MAGIC FURNACE ("all the narrative devices you'd expect to find in a Harry Potter book are here” - the Daily Mail); THE UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR ( "a parallel universe where science is actually fun" - the Independent); and THE NEVER-ENDING DAYS OF BEING DEAD (“a limousine among popular science vehicles” – the Guardian).

The Interview. General Questions
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
MC: My cousin’s wife, Anne, has a giant land snail called Julie. She’s not very active (Julie, I mean) and seems to wall herself in her shell for most of the year. But Anne loves her! She’s had Julie since she was an egg. It was been thrown out by school. Anne saved two eggs but, unfortunately, Carl died young. Julie’s been going strong for 10 years now. How long do giant snails live?

CD: What is your proudest moment?
MC: Finding my cousin, Mike, who had been lost to the family for 50 years. Mike’s mum – my aunt – died of an asthma attack, aged 25, in 1954. Mike’s dad – presumably traumatised – took two-year-old Mike away and was never seen again. my dad always said “you’ve got a long-lost cousin”. and, when he died in 1999, it became important to me to find him. In 2004, while googling on the internet, up came a face. I called my wife, Karen, and said: “What do you think about this face?” “It looks like you,” she said.

Mike was totally shocked when I phoned. all I could think was “Dad, I’ve found him!” That week will always be impressed on my mind because London, where we live, got the Olympics and we got blown up. Karen and I were close to Edgware Road, our local tube station, when the bomb went off, and we ended up assessing the injured in the foyer of the local Hilton.

Mike had no idea his mum had a brother – my dad (in fact, five brothers and sisters). His dad had re-married and never spoken about his mum – or how she had died. From an aunt, I got Mike a photograph. He was 52 and it was the first time he’d seen ever seen the face of his mother.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
MC: They tend to be life-changing decisions rather than “road to Damascus” events. The decision to turn by back on research in astrophysics at CalTech, come back to England and risk trying to something I wanted to do more: write. The decision to spend my life with Karen. The decision to leave a staff job at “New Scientist” and go freelance, with a view to writing books… (my biggest life-changing event was actually my dad and mum meeting, aged 15 and 16 respectively, at Alexandra Palace in north London in 1950!)

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
MC: Just did a talk on my book “quantum theory cannot hurt you” at the National Museum of Scotland, which is close to the churchyard where Greyfriar’s Bobbie is buried. The thought of that dog spending 10 years – or whatever it was – waiting by his owner’s gravestone, well, it breaks your heart! Closer to home, it was terribly sad sending the children back. Yes, you read right. No one expects an adoption to fail but the reality is that an awful lot do. All of us – the children included - tried as hard as we could but none of us could make it work.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
MC: Worry less. but, as you grow older, you realise that some things are difficult to change because they’re ingrained in your personality. Karen tends not to worry so much. but then she is a Macmillan nurse and spends time with people with terminal diseases. They put things in perspective. after all, compared to dying nothing is worth worrying about!

CD: What is happiness?
MC: Laughing with friends. Beans on toast. Swimming in the Serpentine in Hyde Park early on a summer’s morning alongside the geese and ducklings. Being mobbed by 5-year-olds (well, three of them!) waving their copies of “Felicity Frobisher…” in a restaurant in Bath. Having a takeaway from our local Lebanese restaurant on a saturday night while watching junk TV like “the x-factor”. A blue sky. A puffy white cloud. A coffee and a cake in an outdoor café. The realisation of how lucky I am to be able to “enjoy” all these simple things. Adopting has shown me that some children, because of what has happened to them, live in “survival mode”, a constant state of fear and anxiety and watchfulness that precludes actually being able to enjoy anything.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
MC: Make the bed – isn’t that dull? Maybe I should say, do one-arm press-ups or feverishly scribble down ideas for novels that have come to me in my dreams!

(website is here).
CD: Why did you decide to write for children after being a successful popular science writer?
MC: When I was at school my favourite subjects were English and Physics. But it was impossible to do both. So I ended up pursuing Physics, ending up at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena doing radio astronomy. It was there that I thought: “No, this is not for me.” and decided to try and get back into writing. I worked as an editor on “New Scientist”, then left to go freelance when I started writing popular science books. But the books were the route of least daring since they were only a short step from science journalism. But I always wanted to get back to the kind of things I liked at school and write things that were more imaginative and more me. I have many unfinished stories, novel ideas etc. But, for some reason, I thought I would write a children’s story. And that was the thing I pursued through the inevitable rejections by publishers. I actually discovered, when I started, that it was a lot of fun, not the chore that some factual writing can be. Now I want to do more!

CD: I think I know Felicity Frobisher! Where does she come from?
MC: you know her? I’d love to know more!
CD: I thinks she's me.
MC: I don’t know where the name came from. But it seemed to have the right rhythm for the title. Titles and their rhythms are very important. As for the personality of Felicity Frobisher, Felicity Frobisher is actually me! When I was at school I was dull and boring and polite and never got into any trouble, just like Felicity Frobisher. But I had a very bad friend – exactly like felicity’s friend Flummff. He got me into all sorts of trouble. I was chased out of a park by a park keeper waving his fist and shouting “hooligan!” just like Felicity (though I never went down a wormhole or visited the international space station).

CD: If you could see a three-headed aldebaran dust devil, what would it look like?
MC: I imagine Flummff as three intertwined, dusty tornadoes. If you look on the website… you’ll see what one 9-year-old thinks a Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil looks like.

CD; What sort of child do you think would read your book? Did you have him or her in mind when you wrote it?
MC: Felicity Frobisher should appeal to all children from 5 upwards (my wife, Karen, likes it – and she’s 48!) I hope most children will identify with felicity frobisher because she wears big glasses, is not very good at school, not very athletic and gets picked on by the school bully. She’s the underdog. Girls will, I hope, naturally identify with Felicity Frobisher. But boys will also enjoy the book since Flummff, Felicity Frobisher’s very bad friend who gets her into so much trouble, is a boy.

CD: The illustrations have an attractive, unusual style - reminding me a little of the flintstones era. Did you have any say in what they should look like and where they should go?
MC: Good question. My publisher, Faber, sent me an initial cover design by a particular illustrator, which I didn’t think was right. I hesitated about telling them this because some publishers don’t like author input. However, to their eternal credit, they met with me to discuss the illustrations. I took with me illustration samples I had downloaded off the internet and greetings cards showing little girls who looked the way I imagined Felicity Frobisher. One card in particular was perfect. It showed a real-life little girl, dressed up with a handbag, wearing glitter glasses. When we chose Ned Joliffe – from some illustrators Faber commissioned some samples from – Faber passed on the greetings card with the real girl in glitter glasses. And she metamorphosed into the illustrated Felicity Frobisher. So all the toing and froing was worthwhile.

CD: Do you have plans to write any more books about Felicity?
Mc: I have already started “Felicity Frobisher and the Newly Wedded Capellan Toast Weevil”. Faber, however, is waiting to see how the first one does before commissioning another. So please buy copies for you and all your friends!

CD: Now you have written fiction and non-fiction, for adults and children - where do you plan to go next?
MC: non-fiction is my bread and butter. It pays the electricity and gas bill. So I will keep on doing that. Fiction is still more speculative and something I do when I can. Of course, I hope that will change!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Writing Den Progress: Floor insulation

(Continuing my mini-blogging-project to record the preparation of my shed)

After nailing additional joists along the floor, Hodmandod Senior has cut Eco Wool to fit

and then covered the whole lot with additional padding(an attempt to reduce noise)...

April Farmers' Market

It was the monthly farmers market again, this morning.

So we bought bread (from the back: black olive, sunflower, walnut and raisin, garlic and herb, 5 seed and white),

smoked salmon, smoked chicken, sausages made from smoked trout and also from goat, mature Cheshire cheese,

carrots, sprouting broccoli, parsnips and leeks,

soup (celeriac, parsnip and smoked red pepper and bean and tomato), dry cider, apples (unknown variety),

then crisps (potato and carrot, parsnip and beetroot), fudge, three sorts of eggs (unfortunately dropped - but only the large Leghorn failed to survive impact) and biscuits.

A very good haul.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

An Unfortunate Incident with Lipstick

I am going to a gala dinner in less than a fortnight and a quick google-search has revealed it is customary not only to dress up to the nines, but also to wear make-up (well, if female - although I am sure that males can too, if they wish).

Since a brief inspection of the Hodmandod make-up stash revealed items from the early eighties, I thought I'd better renew supplies. Consequently I have wasted at least fifteen minutes of my life today standing before the various make-up ranges in Tesco (yes, I am that glamorous) dabbing various lipsticks onto my hand to find one that reflects my prudish character.

Since returning home I have been trying to scrub the stuff off without success and now look like I have some particularly nasty viral infection. I think I might have to wear gloves at Chester Writers tonight.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Planning is Everything

Just discovered Hodmandod Senior's 'detailed plans' on the dining room table...

...for insulating the floor of my writing den.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Insect Stamps

Dr Grump likes these. She says that if she feels in a particularly good mood the letter will get a butterfly or moth; but usually she will attach a Stag Beetle or a Red-barbed Ant. She thinks it is significant step forward in the history of human civilisation that her mood can now be conveyed philatelically.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

What I'm Doing 21:

What I'm listening to:
BLACK AND WHITE from the album OTHER PEOPLE'S PROBLEMS which I have on order. I hadn't realised quite how bleak this song is - but I still love it.

What I watched last:

IL POSTINO which I think is now one of my most favourite films of all time. It is about a man who becomes a postman to a poet who has been exiled to a small island off the Italian coast. They become friends and a satisfying relationship develops between the two of them. It is, I think, about how little one human being can really know another.

What I'm reading:

13 WAYS OF READING A NOVEL by Jane Smiley - and it is still excellent.

What I'm looking forward to (very much):

Going down to London tomorrow and meeting a few friends.

What I'm dreaming about:

Writing in my shed.

Twenty-fourth Sunday Salon: The Origins of the Novel

Good morning Salonists (now well over a hundred of us so I heard from Debra, recently)!

I am still reading Jane Smiley's 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL. I'm making slow progress because it's been a busy week, and the book, at almost 600 pages, is not very portable. It is extremely interesting however, particularly for someone like me, who has never studied English Literature.

The chapter I just finished, 'The Origins of the Novel', gave a sweeping historical summary of the form going from Giovanni Boccaccio's fourteenth century DECAMERON (in which ten people who have decamped outside Florence to avoid the plague tell each other 100 stories) through Marguerite de Navrre's sixteenth century
HEPTAMERON (inspired by the DECAMERON and ten more characters tell each other seventy stories while escaping flooding in the Pyrenees), then Cervantes's version of seventeenth century Spain, DON QUIXOTE, which also included an exploration of the inner as well as the outer life of the protagonist, and Madame LaFayette's THE PRINCESS OF CLEVES, just slightly later.

Then came the career of Daniel Defoe from the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century who made the revolutionary step of using a first person narrative, for example in ROBINSON CRUSOE, and had 'morally problematic' protagonists, which in turn encouraged Samuel Richardson to write the epistolary novel PAMELA and Henry Fielding, in reaction to the politics in Richardson's work, to write several works including TOM JONES. This included a commentary which linked the story to classical models and hence made the form respectable as well as fun.

The chapter concludes with another eighteenth century novel: TRISTAM SHANDY by Laurence Sterne which extends the idea of exploring the inner life of a character with his characters as eccentric and unique.

I suppose after that the scene was set for people like Jane Austin and the Brontës - which is where readers like me come in. I've never read any of these early works, and one day, I hope, I shall - just as soon as I've got through the rest of my pile of modern novels.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Not my fault...

...but Hodmandod Senior's.

Hodmandod Senior is re-learning Latin, and a good place to find books in Latin is a second hand book shop. I resisted the shelves in the first British Heart Foundation shop, and then the shelves of the second, but then we hit the Oxfam shop, and it was, I'm afraid, my undoing.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wildsong at Dawn

Today I heard about a project that combined the Arts and science in a way that I found moving. I keep thinking about it.

There is a time in the morning in May in the UK when the dawn chorus rises to a crescendo. It is, apparently, the best in the world, and recently a sound artist called Chris Watson went out to listen and, more importantly, encouraged other people to go out and listen too. Gradually they recorded and accumulated bird songs, and gradually, through this artistic collaboration, they started sharing other things too. These people had a lot to share: some were seriously ill children, some were their parents, some were the people who looked after them, some were security guards at the Alder Hey children's hospital - all of them dealing, in some way, with the stresses caused by a child being ill and in hospital.

They have installed a corridor of sound in Alder Hey now; it is filled with the songs of birds and they have found that walking along it changes the way people feel. It induces calm. The outside world shifts indoors. The child about to have an operation or an uncomfortable procedure relaxes, and is perhaps able to sleep. You can hear WILDSONG AT DAWN, and read more about the project here.

This was one project supported by the Wellcome Trust and today I went to a workshop in the Liverpool Tate at the Albert Docks and found out more about the sort of work that interests them.

It was an exciting day and it was quite an eclectic gathering: artists, film-makers, research scientists, Arts organisers and students. I'm not sure the work of a writer is at all relevant but it was very interesting listening to other people's innovative and original ideas.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Off to Liverpool with Eudora

I've had this book on my book pile for ages.

Short stories are good for short journeys, I feel, so Eudora Welty's Thirteen Stories are going to accompany me to Liverpool tomorrow. I am going to the Tate Art Gallery to a meeting organised by the Wellcome Trust on funding in the science and the Arts. I'm not quite sure where I am at the moment - teetering on the edge, perhaps, about to fall in.

Why I should always listen to Susan...

Note to self:
When Susan says "Do not...repeat...DO NOT...look at" something. It is wise to follow her advice.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Shed Cometh

Before 10 am there was just this (the place where we put the washing line - never a very good place)....
After there was this...

I was going to take photos as the shed was assembled but the men were too quick. By the time I'd made them some coffee it was up...

Now all that's needed is some electricity, some heating and some insulation (because it is very cold), and a desk, and a couple of chairs.

I am very happy with it. Inside, it feels strangely peaceful. I think perhaps it is the smell of the wood and the sense that nature is close.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Last 98 Reasons Talk

I have just given my last talk ever on my 98 REASONS FOR BEING book. It was to the 'Waverton Good Read' - an event organised in a nearby village (I have written about this before here). They were a jolly little crowd...

...and at the end I was given this mug.

My Reading Piles

Here is my pile of books that I desperately-want-to-read...

so I shouldn't really have been tempted into acquiring these just last week, should I?

So maybe I shall just add them to my 'current' pile of books I'm currently reading (the brilliant Jane Smiley and the Elizabeth Bowen which is just as atmospheric as it says on the cover), but after that, no more, definitely no more...for at least a while...