Thursday, October 30, 2008

Cold ending.

They were resurfacing the road into Mold today. I had to stop and for a few moments admired the way white birds wheeled around a snow-covered field and as they dropped below the background of the dark sky immediately became grey. For some reason they reminded me of scavengers, as if there was some half-eaten carcass that had attracted their attention, and it seemed to me that this might be how the world ends - with scavengers - the end of the food chain.

What if it ended now, I wondered. It is something that used to occur to me a lot when I was younger. Who I would try to run to or phone in those last few minutes - my parents, my brothers, my husband, my sons, my friends...? Then I thought of how it would be to have no one... And then the sun caught the hills. They were still covered in a patchwork of snow, the dark hedges like seams of crude sewing, and the sun glanced off the crest and made it glow white and I felt that if the world were to end this would be my perfect final vision.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Oral histories day tomorrow! So tonight, in preparation, I made brown cakes...

and also these... 8oz flour

4 oz butter...rubbed in...

3oz sugar...

dried fruit (usually I use currants)

1 egg,

maybe some milk.

rolling out


fat rubbed into stone...

waiting and turning over (a tense moment)...

...all this for these....

Welsh Cakes! (Although I have to ask myself was it really worth it...maybe I shall find out tomorrow)

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Walking the White Road: Stop 1.

Welcome to the first stop on Tania Hershman's magical (and virtual) book tour of several continents!

Last Sunday I finished reading Tania's debut collection of short stories, THE WHITE ROAD, and enjoyed the experience very much. I wrote a short review here. There is further information here on Tania's page of her publisher's 'Cyclone' website.

The rest of the stops are at the following excellent blogs:
5 Nov 2008 Literary Minded: Angela Meyer
9 Nov 2008 Vanessa Gebbie’s News
18 Nov 2008 Sue Guiney: Me and Others
26 Nov 2008 Tim Jones: Books in the Trees
2 Dec 2008 Eric Forbes’ Book Addict’s Guide to Good Books
10 Dec 2008 Eco-libris
16 Dec 2008 Kelly Spitzer
23 Dec 2008 Kanlaon
29 Dec 2008 Thoughts from Botswana
6 Jan 2009 Debi Alper (Hello, Debi!)

Tania Hershman was born in London in 1970 and in 1994 moved to Jerusalem, Israel, where she now lives with her partner. Tania is a former science journalist and her award-winning short stories combine her two loves: fiction and science. Many of Tania's stories, which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in print and online, are inspired by articles from popular science magazines. In November 2007, she founded The Short Review, a unique website dedicated to reviewing short story collections. Tania blogs at TitaniaWrites.

The Interview

CD: What aspect of science interests you the most and why?
TH: What fascinates me about science I think is the “solving the puzzle” aspect, that the universe has hidden secrets and we, humans, are trying to crack some code, to work it out. I love the relationship between theoretical and experimental – that there are a bunch of scientists thinking up the way things might be, sometimes crazy, preposterous ideas (String Theory – the proposition that we are all fundamentally made up up tiny vibrating strings - is highly imaginative!) and then the experimenters design experiments to try and prove them right or wrong. It sounds very orderly, but in fact, from what I have seen and read, insights come in flashes, scientists don't think of the universe in dry terms but in terms of the most “beautiful” theory; it's about truth (in so far as anything can ever be true) and beauty. To me, anyway.

CD: Which aspect of science do you think lends itself most readily to fiction?
TH: It's that imaginative side, the creative aspect, the “What If...” of science – What if we were all made of tiny vibrating strings? - that is so close, I think to the “What If...” of fiction – What if, as in one of my stories, a young man is hit by lightning, for example? In this way I think science is inspiring to fiction, and perhaps vice versa. The sheer audacity of imagination of some scientists, the kinds of articles you can read in popular science magazines about not only what scientists choose to research, but how they design their experiments, which also takes enormous creativity, is very inspiring. If you are asking which scientific topics lend themselves most readily to fiction, from my experience it is anything and everything – technology, of course, the practical application of science, is the easiest, because then you write about someone or a society that is somehow changed by this technology, for better or, usually, for worse. Scientists themselves make great fodder for fiction, as in your book about Alfred Wegener where you put yourself inside his skin. The other aspect is using science is a metaphor – quantum physics as a metaphor for how different the world can be at a microscopic level from the level of ordinary daily interaction, or the “action at a distance” idea, that an entity can affect another entity when they are in different places, without apparent physical connections. That's a very powerful metaphor.

CD: Is there an aspect of science that you think could not be incorporated easily into fiction?
TH: Hard to think of one, since I don't see science as a dry discipline, I think anything, any scientific research, any scientist passionate about her job, anyone interacting with science, is potential fodder for fiction, a potential “jumping off” point for a story.

CD: Why incorporate science into fiction?
TH: As you can see, I have a great love for science. I studied it at school and then at university but was a lousy scientist – I didn't have the patience to either keep trying the same experiments over and over or to immerse myself in the theoretical world, that didn't speak to me. But I always loved to write, and I just wanted to combine the two. Being a science journalist did accomplish this, up to a point. But it didn't exercise my imagination: I wrote about others' creativity, what I really wanted to do was to be creative myself. I never read science fiction, although I was a great fan of Star Trek! The way I have done things, letting myself be inspired by scientific fact, just seemed to work for me. As writers, we are inspired by so many things, and not always be chance: you can create sources of inspiration, be they other people's fiction and poetry, or anything else. And I love the concept of a dialogue between fiction/art and science.

CD: Is it necessary to be a scientist or an ex-scientist in order to successfully write science in fiction?
TH: Hmm, a good question. Firstly, I don't subscribe to the “write what you know” dictum in fiction. A writer whose name escapes me recently said that she “writes to find out what she knows”, and that sounds more like my style. But I also write to learn about the world, so in that way I would say no, you definitely don't have to be a scientist to incorporate science into fiction. But you may run into problems with the scientific community if you do that without what they might see as “credentials”. Because of my science education, I, for example, feel quite free to make up science. I have a story in which I have done just that. I make no claims for the accuracy of the science, but I know there is great debate (on the wonderful LabLit website, for example) about whether this is acceptable or desirable. I am a great believe in fiction being fictional!

CD: Did you learn anything about science when you wrote these stories?
TH: Definitely – in as much as I was learning all the time from reading New Scientist magazine for inspiration, and other science magazines. As a journalist, I learned something new every time I went to interview someone, and I loved that aspect of the job. I wouldn't want that to stop. But if you are asking whether I did research into science for the stories, no, I didn't. I would read an article – for example, an article about Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, learn a little about how they work, and then start a story (Evie and the Arfids). I wouldn't search for more info on RFIDS, because my main character, Evie, didn't need to know anything else, it was more about what the RFIDS (Arfids) are to her and for her, not the deep technical specifications.

CD: What is the difference between science in fiction and science-fiction?
TH: Aha, another interesting question! I just received an email from a friend who has been reading my stories and he said some of them had a “sci-fi feel” to them. I had this traditional view of science fiction, (from the Star Trek watching) that it is about aliens, starships, other planets. But as editor of The Short Review, I have been thoroughly disabused of this notion after having been sent several science fiction short story collections to review, namely Logorrhea, an anthology in which you have a story, and Kelley Eskridge's Dangerous Space. This second book was described to me as “feminist science fiction” and, in all my ignorance, I imagined female starship commanders. Frankly, I am embarrassed to admit that, because both books contain beautiful writing and what I would call magical realist/surreal stories, where you are in the world more or less as we know it, with a twist – be it a touch of telapathy or some other magical aspect. I loved these books, I said to myself “Well, if this is science fiction, I want to be a part of it”, and I now subscribe to several sci fi magazines. It has made me angry at the often false genre divisions in literature – I would not have found these books, would not have read these fabulous stories, simply because I don't visit the Science Fiction shelves. A shame. However, all the stories in my collection were written before my discovery of modern sci fi, so to be honest I don't know anymore what the difference is. If someone reads my book and says that some of it is science fiction, I would be delighted. The stories are out there, it's not up to me anymore to say what they are or are not. I call them “science-inspired fiction”, but New Scientist, which last week put my story The White Road on their website (alongside the New Scientist article that inspired it) called it fiction inspired by science journalism. Perhaps that is more to the point: if the journalists hadn't written so well about the subjects, perhaps I wouldn't have been so inspired.

General Questions

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
TH: When I read your question, the first thing that came to mind was Brian the snail from the Magic Roundabout. Did you know that he has a website? Yup. Growing up in central London, I was very much a city child, I wasn't aware of snails or other creatures, we didn't have our own garden. So it was just the television snail celebrities that are memorable!

CD: What is your proudest moment?
TH: Hard to narrow that down to one. My book launch party here in Jerusalem two weeks ago was definitely a proud moment. I invited a lot of people, for me it was the closest thing I'd had to a wedding, with everyone there for me, which isn't easy for someone who spends most of her time shut in a room alone with a laptop! But when I stood up in front of my friends and family and read two short short stories, and they listened with great attention and then demanded I read more, that really was a proud moment. I didn't think many of them had read my stories before, I didn't quite know how it would be. And it exceeded all expectations.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
TH: I've had several. The first was probably going on the Arvon Foundation's Writing and Science course in 2002. Not only did I meet my partner, James, there, but for the first time I saw that it could be done, I could incorporate science into fiction. And I met other people, other writers, who wanted to do that too. That was the beginning of everything for me.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
TH: That is such a hard question. Living in Israel for almost 15 years, I have seen witnessed some appalling scenes, both the sites of suicide bombings and the faces of the families of the dead, and also the desperately sad situation of the Palestinian people. However, one of the saddest things I have heard was the news that two friends had been killed in a terror attack at the Hebrew University in 2002. To so suddenly and violently lose two people, it was as if they had been ripped from the world, it shook everything, it seemed unnatural, unjust, unbelievable.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
TH: I'd like to be a bit more sociable – since becoming a full-time writer, I feel as though I am retreating further and further into the world of my characters, and while that is necessary, I don't know if it is always desirable.

CD: What is happiness?
TH: Writing stories.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
TH: Make tea.

Next stop on the Walking the White Road Tour will be in Australia on Nov 5th, at LiteraryMinded.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

What I'm Doing 25:

What I'm reading:

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes. Not got very far yet, due to...

What I've just finished:

A great pile of work, so I'm celebrating.

What I watched last:

Latest episode of Heroes - (watched on Friday, recorded from last Wednesday). It just gets better and better.

What I'm listening to:

Ian Van Dahl - Castles In The Sky. Ali plays this when we're spinning and I really like it...

Sunday Salon 26 October 2008

I got up early. It was dark and cold, the wind chasing rain around the house, making me feel glad that today I haven't got to go anywhere or actually do anything much - except for an interesting little project at my desk. That could come later, after breakfast, I decided, and in the meantime finished THE WHITE ROAD by Tania Hershman. This is a stimulating collection of short stories with many fantastical ideas coming from the New Scientist popular science magazine.

Tania Hershman uses the extracts as the germ for her stories, and allows her imagination to develop them into sometimes magical scenarios. For instance, in Rainstiffness, which is one of my favourites, she uses the quote 'Plenty of studies have looked at pain associated with weather, especially in people suffering from arthritis.' (New Scientist, March 2006) and goes running with it. What would happen if it wasn't just pain one felt, but something else? Like other explorers of the fabulous, Hershman takes this idea to one of its logical extremes: what would happen if the rain caused paralysis? It is an affecting tale with a poignant ending.

Interspersed are pieces of flash fiction which explore other facets of this business of living; predominantly from the female's point of view. Flora Comes Back begins 'After he married that woman Flora took up night time jogging. She did violence to the pavement while others ate dinner, the air between street and the sole of her shoe the absorber of her shock.' It is a whimsical turning around of ideas, and an arresting thought that conveys much - rather like poetry in fact.

The last story returns to one of the themes of the first story, The White Road (which you can read here, on the New Scientist's website) - temperature. North Cold starts 'There is a small town in the north that is cold all year round.' and then something extraordinary happens...

Which takes me rather neatly back to the weather outside my window in this small town in the north - and it suddenly feels somewhat warmer.

Tania Hershman is going to start her on-line book tour on this blog this Tuesday 28 October, and I am looking forward to being part of it. If you want to read more about this, Tania's page is here.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

An Interview with Nicholas Crane

On Wednesday night I went to another event at the Chester Literary Festival: an evening with Nicholas Crane. It was in one of the university's largest lecture halls, and it was packed. The talk was very interesting; towards the beginning he showed us funny outtakes from his TV programmes (presenting geographical programmes is clearly a somewhat perilous occupation), and he also gave us an overview of Great British Journeys and some of the rest of his experiences.

He ended with a summary of what a few of the Great British Explorers thought of Chester. Although Gerald of Wales seemed to appreciate the city, Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe did not, and both seemed to abhor the old-fashioned timber structures above the warehouses, which are still in place. By the twentieth century, however, these were called 'The Rows' and were beginning to be admired by people such as H. V. Morton.

After the event there was a long queue for the book signing, and I added CLEAR WATERS RISING to my collection because I liked Great British Journeys so much (I have written about it here and here).

After I had read the book I asked Nick Crane (through the kind offices of the agent Juliet Pickering) if he would answer a few questions and he very kindly agreed. (I did submit these to the local newspaper, together with a photo from Nick's publisher, Orion, but disappointingly they did not have enough space.)


Nick Crane is the presenter of the BBC TV programmes Coast, Mapman and Great British Journeys, and is an award-winning writer and journalist. In 1992-3 he walked alone for eighteen months along the entire mountain watershed of Europe, depicting this epic adventure in Clear Waters Rising. His next book, Two Degrees West, was published to great acclaim in 1999 and was an account of a walk down Britain's Central Meridian. In 2002 he published Mercaptor: The Man who mapped the Planet, which is a biography of the world's first modern scientific cartographer, the sixteenth century Gerald Mercaptor.


CD: Out of the eight explorers in this book which one did you identify with the most?
NC: Probably Gerald of Wales, I think. It struck me that he had a twinkle in his eye, and this is apparent on the page in that he knew how to tell a story, like a medieval Bill Bryson - he had the perfect mix of digression and anecdote. He established a template for travel writing - long before travel writing became an established genre. He was an original.

CD: Which one did you most admire?
NC: Thomas Pennant, when he went off to explore the western islands of Scotland, in terms of courage and nerve, he was a kind of Scott of the Antarctica of British exploration. He went off into uncharted waters, and he got ship-wrecked, he didn't think twice about climbing unclassified mountains just to get a good view. Then he did this great trek through what we now know as Rothiemurchus Forest. I admired him enormously. He also had compassion. He went there as a scientist collecting data, but he came back as a humanitarian. It takes quite a lot of courage, open-mindedness and self-awareness to alter the purpose of an expedition as it happens.

The one I admired the most as an individual was Celia Fiennes because she set off on her journeys for purely personal reasons and to amuse herself. It was only after I'd researched her that I realised she had a secret agenda - to ride her horse through every single English county, but was so modest, she never mentioned once that that was what she was trying to achieve. I admired her enormously that long before tourism she set off to acquaint herself with every single English town. She was dedicated to self-education through travel. She was motivated entirely by curiosity and had no hidden agenda, and even though she went through lots of terrifying incidents she made nothing of them.

CD: Did you have a favourite walk or part of a walk?
NC: Yes, lots: walking out to the basaltic columns at Briis-mhawl near Talisker in Skye, climbing and filming in Snowdonia, and filming on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, where the view was fantastic. The best walk was following Thomas Pennant's route from Dundonnell to Kinlochewe, and piecing together exactly where he'd been.

CD: What was the most dramatic change you noticed between the landscape in the past and now?
NC: Industry, roads, the site of William Cobbett's farm is now Kensington High Street Tube Station - that's a dramatic change. In Norfolk, where I spent a lot of time filming, which used to be the epicentre of exciting things, are now sleepy silted-up little villages which were once teeming ports, and would have been crammed with ships - but have only a few small boats today.

CD: I've been reading about scientists and writers having eureka moments and many of them recommend walking as a way of having one! Have you ever had a great revelatory moment when out walking on your own?
NC: I have a lots of thoughts when out walking - for instance which book to write next, and which TV series I'd most like to do. There's something about walking which is slightly hypnotic, and I think the rhythm of moving legs and arms allows one to drift off into a state where connections are made in a non-linear way. That is, for me, where the most exciting ideas come from. Maybe there's a reason for this; maybe we're hard-wired , back in the days when we were nomads, to come up with solutions when we're moving from one place to the next - that would make sense. Also I think there's a level of decisiveness with walking as well, it's not enough just to have the idea, you've got to have the motivation and the decision-making ability too - and walking in itself is quite a decisive process.

CD: How did you go about retracing the explorer's steps for the TV - how did you sleep and eat for instance?
NC: We have about eleven days to make a one hour film and because filming is a fairly elaborate process it means moving on every day to another hotel or a highland lodge, or a hostel - anywhere that can provide accommodation in the right place. In 'Britannia', which I've just finished filming , we had a sequence in the Cairngorms, which meant doing a two-day trek carrying a tent, and slept, and filmed, at three thousand feet on the Cairngorm Plateau, It is a big adventure to travel with all this film equipment on our backs. We make out filming as low carbon as possible so we don't use helicopters unless we have to.

CD: Is there a philosophy behind what you do?
NC: I like surprising people, and getting a new generation excited about this island, waking people up to the wonders, and the idea that it is a highly dynamic landscape that is always changing. It is a way of showing that the temperature rise of the last six hundred years will change the landscape enormously, but if we do the right thing, the next generation will be able to go on enjoying it.

General Questions.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
NC: Not that I'm aware. I have eaten them, though!

CD: What is your proudest moment?
NC: Seeing my children succeed.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event?
NC: Yes, quite a few - getting married, having children, reaching Istanbul after setting off from Spain eighteen months earlier and crossing the continent of Europe, seeing my biography on Mercator being reviewed by Dr Lisa Jardine - that was a big moment; watching the second episode of COAST hit 5 million viewers. I've been very fortunate - having big adventures means that I've had several life-changing moments.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
NC: The notorious curve of the graph showing the rise in CO2 concentration due to the industrial revolution.
CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
NC: 100% vision.

CD: What is happiness?
NC: Being forgiven.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
NC: I tend to leap into the day, if I'm at home I walk my children to school, if I'm on a film shoot I hurl myself into the shower.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Book Feast

A couple of months ago I came across (and wrote about here) an account of the work of Daniel Everett with the Piraha people in the Amazon in THE EDGE, and it fascinated me. So I was delighted yesterday when his book DON'T SLEEP, THERE ARE SNAKES landed on my doormat from Profile books. I've only read the notes, the preface and the prologue so far but already I am caught up - there is so much here.

First I went through the notes trying to mouth the Piraha words to myself; some of the sounds only the Piraha make. Then in the preface that some science 'can be pursued by lone individuals...feeling lost and over their heads, yet challenged to bring out new knowledge over their difficulties.' and I find that encouraging, as if it is a message to anyone who slogs on alone. Then, in the prologue, he describes waking up one morning amongst the Piraha. They are running in great excitement to the beach, and yet when runs too he is unable to see why he is there. For Daniel Everett and his six hear old daughter, the beach is empty - only the Piraha can see the spirit that is standing there.

The writing is great, he draws me into the jungle immediately with his detail: the babies trying to keep their mothers' breasts in their mouths as everyone starts to run; the leathery skin of the children; and the callouses on their bottoms because that is how a Piraha baby chooses to move around - shuffling rather than crawling (the sensible choice, I think - it was my modus operandi too).

Unfortunately this now means I have three books open and I am desperate to read them all: last night I couldn't sleep and happened to pick up FRED AND EDIE by Jill Dawson - a book that has been tempting me for some time since I read her book WILD BOY (which I thought wonderful) and also WATCH ME DISAPPEAR (also good). FRED AND EDIE seems to be in the wonderful category too - at least so far. The other book is QUANTUM THEORY CANNOT HURT YOU by Marcus Chown - which is just as good as his other books, and something I wish I'd read long ago (like alongside the dreaded Quantum Mechanics course at university).

However, I am going to have to put them all aside until later because I have to do some writing of my own, but as soon as I've finished I am going to slink off into a corner somewhere and indulge myself and just read.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Anne Stevenson - poet and playwright.

I am very pleased with this photograph of the poet Anne Stevenson I took at the Chester Literature Festival on Monday night.

Anne Stevenson is an endearing person, not at all precious, and I think that she has a mischievous streak. I say this because in the second half of the evening she read out 'the Myth of Medea' (from her last book, STONE MILK) with my friend Alan Wall, and she read lines like 'Scum! What assistance can a nerd like you give me?' with obvious relish. The subtitle of the play is 'An Entertainment' which it certainly is!

Anyway, her poetry entertained me so much (there were serious thoughtful sorts too) that I bought her complete works - an impressively large book (over 400 pages) - and I am going to have a good time dipping into this over the next few months... and years.

On the subject of time, I shall end with the first few lines from her poem 'Jet Lag'
Most of the time my age fits me exactly;
The clock on my wrist keeps time
with the clock inside me;
The seconds pile minutely into days,
Thickening into wrinkles of Sundays and Mondays...

There is going to be a recession.

Just in case there's anyone around who hasn't picked up on this yet (heh).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wegeners Laubsäge

I received an email from my German publisher and translator, Axel Dielmann, this morning with the proposed cover of my Wegener book. Since it is part of a series on science, much of the design is determined already; but I do very much like this photograph of a cloud descending an icy slope which is unique to the book. As Axel says, it conveys the essence of the book very well.

There is just the little matter of the spelling of my name to sort out yet, but I do like the subtitle. It says something like: 'A novel of the great continental drift, three north pole expeditions, and other smaller matters'.

Axel came across my book on the internet, and contacted me via my website - so I am very glad I have it.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Four Links.

Holly Tucker at the wondrous and marvellous Wonders and Marvels blog is conducting an experiment with her daughter who is in third grade (aged seven or eight, I'd guess). They want to find out how far across the world they can reach from their blog - so please go over there and say hello and tell them where you're from (It is also a really fascinating blog - all about the history of medicine).

And while I'm on the subject of linking, I've been meaning to mention that Jonathan Wonham has now relocated from Paris to Norway and has accordingly dedicated a new blog to this country called Icebus. I've read a good few posts now and love the clear impression of this country that I visited last year. There is something so evocative and strong about Jonathan's writing. It draws me right in. I'm looking forward to following it through winter.

Another relocation is Jon Turney's blog, which has transmuted from Science Books blog into Unreliable Futures. This is the subject of Jon's forthcoming book - a kind of scientific gazing into the future. Another fascinating subject, and blog.

Finally, I would like to give notice of a book tour with a difference. Just recently Tania Hershman, who lives in Israel, had her book of short stories called THE WHITE ROAD published in the UK, and I bought myself a copy because the stories were inspired by articles in the New Scientist - and a jolly good selection they are too (although I have only got through a few yet).

A week or so ago she asked me if I'd take part in her on-line book tour called Walking the White Road, so of course I agreed. It is organised by her publisher, Salt, and Tania's 'Cyclone book tour page' is here. The first stop on the tour is at this blog on Tuesday 28 October. It sounds like a very interesting venture, and I wish Tania 'Bon voyage' as she travels across the planet, leaving virtually no carbon footprint at all.

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A Poem for Mike.

The weekend has not gone as planned. I seem to be mired down, somehow, and not accomplishing very much. All I have done today is write-up the minutes of a meeting, sort through poems written for a friend whose funeral is tomorrow, and select a couple to read. They are not by me - I don't think I could bear that - but here is one by that famous guy, 'Anonymous', which I like very much.

I suppose I ought to explain that my friend Mike actually ticked - due to the titanium valve in his heart.


Four years ago:
My head is being pressed
Against a stranger's chest.
Not quite what I was expecting
To the question 'What's that ticking?'
But then, this is Mike.

One year ago:
He shows us a wonky fairy
He's made out of Starbucks cup.
It's got a pipe-cleaner wings
And a blu-tack head,
And we laugh with delight because it is wonderful.

One year from now:
He's still around, dancing in the air and
Grinning in our heads.
This, still, is Mike:
And memories of him make us laugh with delight,
Because he was wonderful.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Royalty Statement

Great excitement this morning - a card from the post office to tell me to come down to the post office since there is a letter requiring excess postage for customs. I get down there only to find it is a large stiffly lined envelope from my former, former literary agent to which he has afixed the wrong valued stamp (easily done, I guess).

As I look at the once-familiar writing in green ink I wonder what could be so important that it is packaged in such an elaborate way - the answer is a 'royalty' statement from one of my publishers - and it appears that I owe them even more money now than I did at the beginning of the year.

It's a strange business, this publishing of books. In the same week that I get this I also found myself commiserating with a university lecturer that they could not make my book a set text for one of their more popular courses because it is out of print, and I discovered that someone else had liked this same book enough to call it an 'undiscovered gem' on LibraryThing...and then gone on to express incredulity that so few people seemed to have encountered it.

Thank you Booksloth, whoever you are - you are very kind, and your comments have cheered me enormously.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Doing Nothing

I had such a good day yesterday: I met some really great students and staff at Liverpool John Moores University, and enjoyed myself enormously giving them a talk about madness and literature. Then, in the evening, I headed down to Mold to the History Society and took down the minutes. That was good too.

Today I was supposed to be editing my Patagonia book, but somehow I didn't manage to even open my laptop. I went to aerobics, and then...well, I have a hard time working out exactly what I did. It seems like I did nothing. I didn't read a book, I didn't write anything, all I did was answer the phone a couple of times and fill in a form. Time went by and I sat there like the man without the face in the Murakami novel. Just being. My heart beating in time with some distant clock, second after second, minute after minute.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Brain soup

A hectic day (the sort I like):
first, this morning, a little trip into Wales to see some pretty darned good photographs of graffiti drawn during the second world war;
then home to transcribe an interesting interview I had with Nick Crane over the phone (a week or so ago now) for submission to the local paper;
then notes on a long and complicated paper on oceanic pollution from Imperial College, London for tomorrow night's History Society Meeting;
then dinner;
then a run-through the talk I'm giving at John Moores University tomorrow;
then a little more reading of Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You
and inbetween all this emails, phone calls and conversations...
When I shut my eyes I feel it all mixing together in my head like soup.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

An Interview with Paul Parsons and the Science of Dr Who.

On Saturday Paul Parsons gave a talk on his book The Science Of Dr Who as part of the Chester Literature Festival. This is a book that I hugely enjoyed and have written about it here, here and here.

It was an excellent talk - appealing to young and old alike. The young had fun answering questions which were rewarded with prizes of Jelly Babies and Sonic Screw Drivers, and the older members were rewarded with succession of fascinating facts (and a few good jokes). There were video demonstrations of invisibility cloaks and some amazing visual effects to indicate how our own brain can be tricked into seeing something that is not really there - like Dr Who's psychic paper.

After the talk he signed copies of his books to a string of enthusiastic admirers - including me.

Earlier Paul had kindly agreed to an interview (which I think is really interesting) - part of which is here in the local newspaper - the Chester Chronicle, but I have posted the whole interview below.


Dr Paul Parsons is a freelance writer, editor and author – specialising in science, space and astronomy. He was formerly editor of award-winning BBC science and technology magazine Focus, and was managing editor of BBC Sky at Night magazine. His latest book, The Science of Doctor Who (Icon Books), was longlisted for the 2007 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. He frequently appears on local radio to discuss science news, and occasionally on TV. He lives in the southwest of England.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
PP: I do remember a snail crawling on a plant at the start of the Bruce Dern film Silent Running as one of the most beautiful and memorable movie moments of all time. That and the little visitors we used to get in our very damp, very rundown house when I was a student!

CD: What is your proudest moment?
PP: Graduating, being editor of Focus magazine when it won PPA Magazine of the Year, walking my mum up aisle when she remarried.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
PP: I guess the moment I decided I was going to earn a living by writing. I’m not sure that event in itself was entirely life-changing – I still had to go away and make it happen. But the realisation that this was what I wanted to do more than anything was in itself a life-changing realisation.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
PP: Very hard to answer. The world is an extremely unhappy place, which is a sad fact in itself. It seems there are heartbreaking stories wherever you look, and it’s very hard to put those in any kind of order – who’s to say that any one person’s despair is of greater magnitude than any one else’s. Sadness is quite a subjective emotion. However, personally, I find the way we abuse and exploit other animals particularly depressing.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
PP: I wish I could be more decisive, sometimes.

CD: What is happiness?
PP: Large chips with lots of vinegar. Cold bottle of London Pride. Doctor Who on TV. Nothing else matters!

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
PP: Quite often there’ll be a cat (we have four!) cutting off the circulation to one of my legs. In which case the first thing I do in the morning is try and restore blood flow to my feet, a procedure you might describe as the Tizwas ‘Dying Fly’ meets the Ministry of Silly Walks!

Questions about the Science of Dr Who.
CD: Your book is a fascinating blend of facts about Dr Who and science - a delight for fans, and also for those who just enjoy speculating about the future. How did you come to write the book?
PP: It was a bit of a combination of interests, really. I’ve been a Doctor Who fan since the days of Tom Baker, back when the show used to pull in audiences of 13 million, and when Douglas Adams, of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fame, was the script editor. I’ve also spent time a scientific researcher – I did a doctorate in cosmology (which is the study of the birth, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe). And I now earn my living as a science writer and journalist. So, pull all those strands together and a book on the science behind Doctor Who seems quite a natural result!

CD: Which part did you enjoy researching the most and why?
PP: I don’t think there was any one topic that particularly stood out for me. What I really enjoyed was the degree of enthusiasm for the show from most of the scientists and researchers whom I approached when I was writing the book. Clearly, a lot of them are big fans of the show. I was able to ring up people like Professor Fred Taylor – who’s an eminent planetary scientist at Oxford University – and say things like ‘could you have a planet with oceans of acid, like the world of Marinus that William Hartnell’s Doctor visited in the 60s?’. And he’d turn round and say ‘well, yes - the planet next door to Earth – Venus – has clouds of sulphuric acid in its atmosphere, and if it was only a little bit cooler then this would be free to fall to the ground as a liquid’. And so on… so there was a real enthusiasm for the subject matter. Only one person hung up the phone on me! The original manuscript had a chapter on each Doctor’s attire. The science would talk about what your clothing says about you from a psychological perspective, and then try and apply this to the characteristics we see with each of the Doctor’s ten incarnations. But when I called this particular clothing psychologist they protested that they had ‘nothing to say about Doctor Who’s clothes’ and put the phone down on me. ‘The Fabric of Time’, as the chapter was called, was later shelved and never actually made the published edition of the book.

CD: I particularly enjoyed the chapter on cybermen - it seems that some people are half way there already. I was very surprised to read about the Baja Beach club in Rotterdam. When you were researching for the book was there anything that surprised you too about the apparent prescience of the writers of Dr Who?
PP: Absolutely – the sonic screwdriver. This is the Doctor’s Swiss Army knife, that he keeps in his pocket and uses for opening locks, and cutting through walls – and occasionally for undoing screws. And I really thought – there’s no way you can do this. I mean, using sound beams to undo screws – that’s ridiculous isn’t it? But it turned out that it’s already being done! Devices like sonic screwdrivers are already used in modern manufacturing! Scientists describe the process by which they work as 'structure-acoustic linear ultrasonics', which sounds like some delightful piece of technobabble that Jon Pertwee might have come out with. In basic terms, you make a focussed beam of sound waves which are then directed towards an object, say a screw. The sound waves set up high-frequency vibrations in the screw, that cause it to rattle along in the direction of the threads to either tighten or loosen. (The direction is controlled by rotating the beam).

But, just like the Doctor's 'old friend', real-world focussed sound beams can do more than just turn screws. They can cut through metal and even solder wires in place – this is a primary application of sonic tools in manufacturing. The trouble is that these tools are extremely short-ranged – thousandths millimetres or less. Upping the power levels so that the Doctor can cook land mines from a distance on a few tens of metres, as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor did in the show, would require a hefty power source – bigger, at least for the time being, than anything even Tom Baker could fit in his coat pockets.

The other amusing thing is that I was told much of this by a Professor Douglas Adams, who’s a mechanical engineer and acoustics expert at Purdue University in the States - no relation to the late, great Doctor Who script editor!

CD: What do you think is the relationship between the writers of Dr Who and scientific discovery? Do you think this has changed over the years?
PP: The old, ‘classic’ series of Doctor Who certainly took its science a lot more seriously – which was probably the correct approach for that era.

I think Russell T Davies was right to bring more human drama elements to the new series - and I think that has been one of the key factors in its success. But I still question whether this has to be at the entire expense of the more traditional science fiction elements – the science content of the show. I get the impression Russell T believes quite strongly that it does and he’s endeavoured to tone down what he calls the 'pseudoscience and technobabble'. Personally I think the science elements and the human drama can co-exist - at least for the show as it is now.
It would be interesting to see how the old Tom Baker era episodes would have fared with more human interest and less science in their plots. I'm tempted to think it wouldn't have worked as well. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think this would have detracted from that era's appeal. So maybe this is a sign of the changing times. TV viewers these days want different things.

That said, there have been a few instances of writers of the new series taking science concepts and using them as the basis for some very clever scripts – for example, Steven Moffat’s episodes Blink and The Empty Child, which used ideas from quantum theory and nanotechnology, respectively. But I think in general the series now is less likely than it was in the past to take its lead from what’s going on in real scientific research.

CD: Which Dr Who did you like the best? Which monster?
PP: Tom Baker is absolutely the best Doctor of all time! Though closely followed by Christopher Eccleston… Best monster is a tough one. Though, as I mentioned to earlier, Steven Moffat has come out with some brilliant creations… For example, the Weeping Angels in the episode Blink, in the third season of the relaunched series, are wonderful. They are described in the show as being ‘quantum locked’ which means they can only move when they’re not being observed. This is an idea from quantum mechanics which says that most of the time quantum particles exist as waves, which give the particle an indeterminate position until they’re actually observed, at which point they’re position in space becomes fixed again. Similarly, the Angels can only move when they’re not being watched and otherwise stand rigid like stone statues. There are some great scenes in Blink with flickering light bulbs creating short snatches of dark when the Angels can move, punctuated moments of light when they can’t, creating this kind of strobe-light effect as they close in on their victim. Very scary! Thank heavens for big sofas to get behind.

CD: Have you got a favourite Dr Who episode or story line?
PP: I think it would have to be Logopolis. This was Tom Baker’s regeneration adventure. It sticks in my mind because, for me at least, this was the end of the golden age of Doctor Who. Tom Baker was the longest serving Doctor – he was in the role for seven years – and I think his performance was the best of all the actors that have played him so far. And this whole kind of theme of ‘the end of things’ rings through the entire the adventure. But at the same time it’s done in the Doctor’s inimitable style. For example, at one point he laments the ‘second law of thermodynamics’ which is basically a law of physics which says that in the long run all things must eventually decay away to nothing and disappear. So it’s a bit bleak, but in a very Doctor Who way. I cried myself to sleep!

CD: Is there anything you would like to see Dr Who tackle? Or anywhere you would like to see him go?
PP: Climate change, the credit crunch – we could really do with a Doctor to save us all right now! The Doctor spends his time saving the world from alien invaders. But what about the threat that human beings pose to themselves? Right from the early days of William Hartnell there’s been a tradition of the Doctor going back and visiting key events from history. So, he was there at the OK Corrall, he was there to see Vesuvius erupt over Pompei and his ill-fated assistant Adric crashed a space freighter into Earth 65 million years, wiping out a race of creatures on Earth that we call the dinosaurs. It’d be interesting to see some of the ignominious chapters of human history explored in a little more detail. Where was the Doctor on Sept 11, 2001? The darkest hours of World War 2? What does he make of the atrocities committed by human beings – the creatures that we’re led to believe are his favourite species in the universe – upon each other?

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Sunday Salon October 19 2008

Hello Sunday Salonists! I've had a productive day so far. I got up early and finished finished AFTER DARK and now just want more, more, more Murakami...

It concerns an enigmatic girl called Mari, and her sleeping sister Eri, and takes place, as the title says, after dark during one particular night. Its setting, then, is the world we seldom see, that place occupied by shift workers and insomniacs. People interact differently in the night. They reveal secrets that they might not reveal during the day and thus become closer; and I think this is the theme and point of the book - how close can we get to each other - and in particular, how close are the sisters Mari and Eri.

Several passages stood out for me.
"Finally, no matter what I say, it doesn't reach her. This layer, like some transparent sponge of a thing, stands between Eri Asai and me, and the words that pass out of my mouth have to pass through it, and when that happens the sponge suck all the nutrients out of them."

"Let me tell you something Mari. The ground we stand on looks solid enough, but if something happens it can drop right out from under you."

"Memory is so crazy! It's like we've got these drawers crammed full of uselss stuff. Meanwhile all the important things we keep on forgetting, one after the other."

"You know what I think?" she says. "That people's memories are the fuels they use to stay alive."

"Of course Eri was scared to death too, I'm sure, even as scared as I was. She wanted to scream and cry. I mean , she was just a second grader after all. But she stayed clam. She probably decided on the spot she was going to stay strong. She made up her mind that she was going to be the strong big sister for my sake. And the whole time she kept whispering in my ear stuff like "We're going to be okay . There's nothing to be afraid of. I'm here with you..."

Ah, memories and promises, and trying to reach people - every word resonated with me like a poem. The surreal passages merged beautifully with the more realistic ones, and the descriptions of the city were particularly intense and exciting. It was a short book, but it somehow said a lot...and it was all written in the present tense - which I love. Just recently, I have been trying to stop myself write like this because it seemed too much like an addiction. But now I think I might go back to the present. It says what I want to say, and how I want to say it. I feel as though Murakami has given me permission.

And now, after a brief outing to the gym, I am ready to return to another book. Something completely different: QUANTUM THEORY CANNOT HURT YOU by Marcus Chown. It's a provocative title, I think, and makes me want to retort 'Oh yes, it can!' ...especially if you happened to have a certain lecturer with bushy eyebrows in a certain university in the north-east in the late seventies and early eighties. I don't think my brain has been the same since.

I may also dip into another of Tania Hershman's excellent little stories in THE WHITE ROAD.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Origins of Humour

Why do I like little hardback books so much? Is it the way they fit into my hand or in my pocket? I don't know...but I do like this little treasure that arrived from Profile books today...and it has pictures...and I rather like the sound of the topic: Stop Me If You've Heard This - A History and Philosophy of Jokes by Jim Holt.

Ever since I read a little of Arthur Koestler's ideas on creativity, I have been interested in humour. He said that science, the Arts and humour all depend on a collision of ideas - but they collide in different ways. In science, one idea can combine with another to produce a better explanation of what is happening. For example in one model of an atom it is compared to a ball, and inside the ball is a tiny central round nucleus and electrons spinning around it in layers. Of course an atom is only like this to a certain extent, and as scientists discover more, the less useful this model becomes. However, the moment that such a suitable analogy occurs to a scientist, is the Aha! or eureka moment.

In the arts, I suppose a metaphor accomplishes a similar purpose, it describes things in a different light. But whereas in science the concept is a concise explanation; in the Arts there is a sense that it extends a concept to include more, often emotion. This is what Koestler called the Aaah moment. For instance I suppose I could say that 'his soul was as empty as an atom; a dense angry mass at its centre'.

So that was the idea behind the Aha and the Aaah moments, and Koestler postulated that humour was a variation on this theme - part of a continuum. According to what I remember, Koestler said that humour was a clash of ideas. There had to be an underlying logic, but then this was taken to an inappropriate extreme. So, taking the above example, I think that if I extend 'his soul was as empty as an atom; a dense angry mass at its centre,' with 'and all the kindnesses bestowed upon him fell towards it but were unable to settle; instead they were condemned to orbit, like so many electrons.' then it becomes humorous. At least in my opinion. The metaphor has been extended to such a ludicrous extent, it has become funny. Koestler called this the Haha moment.

Added later: Frank Wilson has a much better example here.

Looking in the index in this book I see no reference to Koestler, but just flicking through I see some interesting cartoons, so I shall look forward to reading this little book and finding out another viewpoint on how, when and why jokes are funny.

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Memory Cloud

Tonight, and for the successive two nights, a couple of artists are going to turn text messages into smoke words in Trafalgar Square as part of a project run by the ICA called Memory Cloud. I've been thinking of the words I would choose to describe clouds and they are:
because, as Wordsworth pointed out, clouds are lonely travellers.



Monday, October 06, 2008

The Third Boulder

In the first chapter of AFTER DARK there is a myth. Three brothers are given three boulders to push by a god. Wherever the boulder stops, there they can build their house and live.

The youngest brother doesn't go very far and stops by the sea. He doesn't mind that he can't see much, at least he will be able to live on the fish.

The second brother stops a little further on, half way up a mountain in a forest. Again he says that he can't see much but can live on the fruit of the forest.

The third brother goes right to the top, there is nothing much here, and all he has to eat is moss, but from here he can see the world.

Putting the book down I picked up the latest edition of the Author and read a piece by Derek Johns, a literary agent at AP Watt, who has recently also published two novels: Wintering and Wakening. He wonders, given the low probability of 'success' (in terms of money or prizes at least), why people write novels, specifically why he writes novels; and decides it is because he likes creating something, and that he believes he is doing something worthwhile.

It is all to do with the view from the mountain, I think. It seems to me that novelists are like that third brother and feel compelled to push their boulder as far as it will go. Even though we know we will find only moss to eat when we get there, we are happy to keep pushing for that view from the top.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sunday Salon 5 October 2008 Repeat posting (test for friend feed)

Anne Sydenham, of the varied and entertaining blog Cat Politics, is offering a truly excellent book for BAFAB week. Please head over there, and have a go at her quiz!

I've had a productive reading week. I finished Nicholas Crane's GREAT BRITISH JOURNEYS on Monday, and enjoyed the book enormously. The third chapter was about a woman called Celia Fiennes, who reacted to the fact that she was unable to go on a Grand Tour of Europe by making a tour of her own country. She, like the rest of the explorers in this book, was seeing this island with new eyes, and noting that there was enough to amuse, entertain, impress and exhilarate in the countryside immediately around us.

The travellers Nicholas Crane has chosen for this book are a eclectic lot - from the author journalist H V Morton who sped around the wilds of Scotland in an early and uncomfortable motor car, to the reverend Gilpin who determinedly searched for the 'picturesque' in the somewhat calmer waters of the Wye. Their motivations and hardships are described in fascinating detail.

However, perhaps the most important feature of this book is that it made me determined to explore my island too. Thomas Pennant set off from Wales via Chester to explore parts of Scotland that had never been mapped before in 1772 . I wondered how long would it take me to follow in his footsteps and a quick search of google maps revealed great tracts of land without roads and tracks just a few hours away. I wouldn't have to fly or even take a boat. I could catch a train to Inverness and after that I could walk northwest and, according to Nicholas Crane's book, see the most dramatic and beautiful landscape in the world. I am persuading Hodmandod Senior to do this, and I think we might.

Since Nicholas Crane is coming to the Chester Literature Festival I asked his agent if he would be willing to be interviewed and to my great delight he agreed. That will follow later.

I have also read three of the stories in THE WHITE ROAD by Tania Hershman, in each one something unexpected has happened, and look forward to reading more of these later. The stories are all very short (well at least they have been so far), and so ideal for dipping into at odd moments.

And finally, and what I think I shall continue reading today, is AFTER DARK by Haruki Murakami, which has some stunning writing describing a city. At first the narrator circles, seeing everything with an alien eye, and then he closes in to a girl sitting at a table. Already, for some reason, I am catching my breath...