Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Salon: The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell

Today I finished, at long last, this excellent book.

It is 1857, and the Collector in Krishnapur knows there is something wrong. He keeps finding chapatis in strange places, and there are general rumours of unrest in the native troops. When he starts making earth defences around the little British settlement he is generally ridiculed and thought eccentric, but of course he gets the last laugh.

'Laugh' is not an inappropriate term for much that follows. Despite the horror, The Siege of Krishnapur is a funny book - this is due to the nuances of the extremely well-observed characters. Despite worsening conditions they behave very much as they have always behaved, not exactly ignoring what is going on around them, but maintaining a certain decorum. 'Civilisation', in particular British civilisation, is the guiding principal for all their lives and it is this, I realise on the very last page is what the book is all about. What is civilisation - and is it worth maintaining?

Krishnapur is a piece of upper class England in India. The Collector's mansion is filled with the paraphenalia of home, and J G Farrell describes the claustrophobic Victorian clutter with an eye for detail. There are books and exquisite pieces of furniture, glass cabinets of stuffed animals, and many items gleaned by the collector from the famous 1851 world fair held in Crystal Palace in London. However, each one is already being ravaged by the Indian climate: the stuffed animals are partly decayed and the books half eaten, and all the furniture has to stand in their own moats of water to prevent invasion by insects. Even at the start it is clear that this 'civilisation' is a temporary visitor - but the collector has an unquestioning faith in it: through civilisation, he thinks, there is scientific discovery and innovation, and in this England is the undoubted leader. It is an act of munificence to share these trappings with the rest of the world, but the Indians don't seem to be particularly grateful.

As with all great books, there are timeless resonances, and this one seems particularly prophetic. For instance toward the end of the book, things have got so bad most of the settlement have decided to auction caches of food that belonged to people who have died and a servant called Vokins makes a bid for some ham. But then the Collector intervenes:
'And look here man, how d'you think you're going to pay for it all? You haven't a penny to your name.'
Again Vokins mumbled. 'Speak up, man!'
'It's not for me, sir.'
'Then who is it for?'
'It's for Mr Rayne, sir.'
All eyes turned toward Rayne, who smiled apologetically and said, yes , that he had Vokins to bid on his behalf as he himself would be conducting the auction and it would clearly be difficult for him to put in bids and be auctioneer at the same time.
'Who else has been making bids for Mr Rayne?' A number of gentlemen raised their hands uncertainly, and a gasp of surprise went up from the assembly as it became evident that almost all the food had been bought on Rayne's behalf.
'D'you have enough money to pay for all these goods, Mr Rayne?'
'Not at the moment, sir, but I soon will have.'
'You intend to sell them again?'
'Most of them, yes...There should be no difficulty....unless, of course.' Rayne added with a smile, 'the relief comes sooner than expected.'
'Mr Rayne, d'you consider it honourable to profit from the distress of your comrades...of the men, women and children with whom you are fighting for your life?'
'It's a question of fortune, Mr Hopkins. One has to make the best of a situation, after all. Besides, everyone else is bidding out of their next pay, just as I am. They can bid against me if they are prepared to risk it. '
'Is everyone bidding out of future pay?'
Several gentlemen nodded and someone said: 'Nobody has cash, of course. That was the only way to do it.'
Which is, I believe, the origin of the current economic crisis in a nutshell. Given that the book was published in 1973 it seems prescient.

It's taken me at least two months to read this book. I would read just a little at each sitting and be content with that. I found it was something I could leave and pick up and be instantly back in Krishnapur because the writing made such a vivid impression it was burnt into my memory. Towards the end the momentum picked up and I read late into the night. Anyway, it was a great book, and made me think of other good books I've read on being beseiged: Helen Dunmore's THE SIEGE, Albert Camus's THE PLAGUE and Ann Patchett's BEL CANTO. Each of these books were entirely different from each other in style and what they had to say. 'SiegeLit' seems to be a genre with much potential.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Special Sort of Swimmer

Well, dear blog reader, today I discovered something wonderful, a little-known fact which I believe could be of great interest to the world: the silkworm moth produces not just one sort of sperm but two.

I have two of them producing them now (although you couldn't tell):

One sort of sperm has a nucleus, but the other does not. And what, you might ask, is the point of a sperm without a nucleus?

Well, things are tough for a silkworm moth sperm. Whereas the human sperm has to swim the sperm-equivalent of the English Channel (or something like that) and then puncture the egg cell wall, the silkworm moth sperm has a more interesting challenge: he must embark on a spermatazoa assault course. After his swimming session (into the female's oviduct) he will encounter a hard shelled egg. He must then find a secret twisting channel through this shell, and only then, if he's successful, will he be able to fuse with the egg and start making an embryo.

But that's not all. The 'sea' this silkworm moth sperm has to swim through before meeting the egg is as gloopy as treacle, and the silkworm moth sperm is inclined to be sluggish. In fact he has to be 'activated' in order to move at all - and this is where the sperm-without-a-nucleus comes in. Both sperm are activated by an enzyme but the sperm-without- a-nucleus is activated first. And once activated it goes a little wild. It stirs things up - which not only breaks down the gloopy liquid and makes it more runny, but helps the sperm-with-the-nucleus to quickly mature and become more mobile. So the sperm-without-a-nucleus acts a little like a trainer getting an athlete to speed.

I find all this incredibly interesting, but when I explained it to Hodmandod Minor he did not seem too enthralled at all. In fact he just looked at the two males in the box and said (in a voice I can only describe as faintly hopeful), 'When those die, that'll be it, won't it? No more silkworms?'
And looked quite disappointed when I said I that actually I was hoping to establish generation number three.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Art of Successful Side-Tracking.

So, I've finished the editing. I've written the reports. Right, I think, time to get back to my reading on silkworm imaginal discs. So I open the book, write a few notes (get a little side-tracked thinking how weird it is that we all start off as similar-looking embryos)...but then the damned postman shoves something that I can hear is not letters through the door, and obviously I have to go and take a look.

Well, actually, Dr Grump gets there first. She rips it open, pulls out the book, and for a few minutes just stands there gawping at the cover.

And it is this: THE ISLE OF DOGS by Daniel Davies from Serpent's Tail.

'What is that girl up to?' she says. 'Has she mistaken a car for a changing room?'

Then she taps the cover with one beautifully laquered finger-nail. ' I do hope she's alone in there, but I have my suspicions that she isn't. And what is that white strappy thing in her hand - surely not the rest of her underwear because, if it is, I feel compelled to point out that it doesn't match. Black bra, white thong - well, personally I would never go there...'

She hands the book to me and I am so busy peering into the car-window that it takes me a few minutes to notice the camera at the top right that is peering too.

And this is the point of the novel - our obsession with spying on each other.

Anyway, I have to tell you that the cover worked. My prurient curiosity now awakened, I looked eagerly inside. The initial conceit is excellent - rather like a modern, snappier version of James Robertson's at the start of THE TESTAMENT OF GIDEON MACK - and then it's straight into the first chapter which is set in a town two hours away from London.

At last a book set in a provincial town by a narrator who has rejected London! Londoners, he says, are too exhausted to do anything. A good point.

'If you want life, if you want intrigue, if you want possibilities, come out here - to the provinces.' Daniel Davies says.

And I feel inspired - and almost too excited to get back to the imaginal cells of the silkworm.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Silkless Pupa 2

He has become darker now, I believe. But is still sensitive to the world around him. A draught causes him to swish his tail. It is a little disquieting. I had tried to convince myself that a pupa was barely alive - and yet clearly it is still a sentient being.

This flick of a tail has caused me to think again about what is life and what exactly is living. I think again of comas, varying degrees of consciousness and the vegetative state. Inside, this pupa is disorganised, its cell walls broken down into a soup of innards - and yet it still reacts. There must be, therefore, something that is left intact: a brain, perhaps, and some sort of nervous system. This twitch of the tail must be some base reaction...and I think of another time, another twitch, and hope that too was some primal reaction without consciousness.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Silkless Pupa

Today I discovered one of the three remaining silkworms had become a pupa without making a cocoon. Five thousand years of breeding and this individual doesn't even deign to spin a single strand of silk! Ah, such a rebellious little worm. I wonder what has caused him to be like this. I know his parents both span cocoons - so why not this one?

He is vulnerable without his shell. When I accidentally touched him I found that he was still soft. He recoiled a little, as if my finger were hot.

I intend to leave him be now and take a photo each day in the hope that he survives and changes into a moth. It should be interesting to see.

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Saturday Interrupted

Saturday morning. The postman shoves a package through the door. It is this gorgeous-looking book from Sepent's Tail: War Damage by Elizabeth Wilson. It is, I note, a literary thriller. I open it and start reading.

'"How did you get a key?"
Charles slid his smile sideways...'

Slid his smile sideways . Slid. If ever there was a 'mot juste' that must be it. Already I am interested.

The page ends:

'Trevelyan came at once with a strangled little whimper.'

A few seconds later I have finished the first chapter. I look at the clock - of course it's not just a few seconds in real time. Once again I have missed my spinnin' class. I shove the book away but it seems to be exuding a bookish pheromone: pick me up, it says, just another chapter. But I shall resist. I am already two books behind on my editing.

The blurb at the back says: 'somewhere between Patricia Highsmith and Sarah Waters' . Spot on, so far, I'd say.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Ty Unnos: the house in one night.

One of my great grandparents was born in a Ty Unnos (literally - 'house one-night') - a house built in one night. You had to start at sunset, you had to gather everyone you knew around to help you. The walls would have to be of wood or turf, and the roof maybe of metal or more turf - everything prepared in advance and hidden around the place half-formed. The chimney would be the difficult part - it would have to be substantial enough to withstand the heat. That was the important thing - there had to be smoke coming through the chimney before sunrise.

I imagine the planning, the hints and rumours passed over the pews in chapel and the bar of the local inn. I imagined the time and place settled with a nod or a word in Welsh. It was important that the English landowners didn't find out. This house would be built on common land, and once that smoke was coming through the chimney, once the occupant had stood by each corner and thrown a mallet, then that would be the builder's land, and his children's land, and their children's..and so, I suppose, part of it should be mine.

It isn't of course. I've heard since that a lot of this was wishful thinking, not legal at all, and anyway, in the mid-nineteenth century when there were land clearances, the English landowners somehow took the common land back. * They evicted the people living in the Ty Unnos, as well as those in more conventionally acquired cottages, and enclosed their land to establish their own great farms. This, of course, happened everywhere, but it hurt more in some places than others.

The reason I'm thinking of all this tonight is that because today I read about a modern-day Ty Unnos being exported to the Smithsonian Folk Festival in Washington DC this July, and it reminded me of this story I heard from one of my grandmothers. It is a story I have incorporated into my Patagonia novel at a pivotal point. This house, this Ty Unnos, it turned out, explained everything...

* Added later. After doing a little more research I found out that many of the Ty Unnos were built as a result of earlier land clearances in the late eighteenth/ early nineteenth centuries. The people were evicted from their cottages then, and so forced to build on pieces of scrub that was infertile and no one else wanted - the common land.

But the clearances went on into the nineteenth century, and so did the building of the Ty Unnos, and some of these were cleared away too, as the landowners extended what was theirs.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Chekhov For Emergencies.

For some time Debra Hamel has been telling me that the ipod touch is the best thing since sliced bread - and today I have to finally acknowledge that she is right.

I couldn't find 'kindle' but I did find something similar called 'stanza' which I could download in seconds for nothing. I then went on to Gutenburg and found several publications under Chekhov including something I've had my eye on for some time - one of his short novels called the Duel. So, in a few minutes I had my emergency Chekhov book. In fact I could have virtually any book that I liked (if I could find kindle and hence amazon) all on a tiny screen 8cm by 5cm.

I can slip it into my handbag since it weighs very little, and yet, surprisingly, it is quite easy to read, and the page turning is fast. I can brighten or darken a page by stroking the screen up and down, go forward or backwards with a tap in the corners, and when I put it down my place will be saved. Now all I have to do is to remember to keep it fully charged (my big failing, I'm afraid).

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Book Ogling

I had to return two books to the library - but happily there were two more awaiting me. Huge great things they were too, but I was delighted to see them, and the librarian delighted that I was delighted and for a while we just ogled them...

This one tucked beneath my chin for instance, The Evolution of the Insects by David Grimaldi and Michael S Engel, consists of a hefty 650 of glazed colour pages, and at a matching hefty price (rightly so because it must have been expensive to produce) is beyond my budget. So I am grateful that Cheshire Library Services were able to borrow it for me from a neighbouring county... and that I have it until 9th June to give it back - which seems like ages away.

It is gorgeous - picture after picture of fossilised insects and then, almost interleaved with this, map after map of where the continents were ...when this hapless insect became entrapped in resin and hopelessly exuded her eggs; this nest of bees became inundated with lime; that mayfly ended its short life on clay; a beetle tumbled head-over-abdomen into a bog, or a mammoth, having eaten a nourishing meal of botfly pupa somehow was overcome by cold. All these small misfortunes are here, all this life and death - and all the while these continents rumble around the globe, making their small incremental shifts from where they were then to where they are now.

I leaf through, and another, smaller time passes. Dinner remains uncooked and the editing on my desktop is untouched since lunch-time. Until at last, eventually and guiltily, I put the book away - promising it for myself as a treat later...

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Silkworm Pupa Tragedy

One cocoon hadn't formed very well, the walls so thin I could clearly see the pupa inside. So today I decided to cut it open so I could take a good look at the pupa and maybe see it turning into moth.

When I picked it up the pupa squirmed. So much so that I dropped it, fatally injuring it. Hodmandod Senior took it away to 'dispose of it properly' and in doing so was able to look at its insides: 'Goo at one end, and structure at the head end,' he said.

Now I can't decide if I wish I'd seen this too. But maybe it is better to imagine some things.

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The Stragglers.

There are just six silkworms left now. They seem to be suspended in some state half way between sleeping and consciousness. Maybe they are trying to resist the urge they have to throw out silk and yet gradually they must succumb. It must be like trying to stay awake in a dark warm lecture theatre with a speaker talking incomprehensibly about something that is of little interest, and each word that he utters is like something heavy on the eyelids. They close and then open, then close again, and the voice becomes more distant and dreamlike, and the listener slumps, mouth open, dribbling, each breath long and deep, becoming louder and more nasal, until at last...or is that just me?

But I digress. Back to the silkworms. They clearly have no energy left to expend on searching for food. Unless I place their food right in front of their noses they do not eat, so I have to fuss around for minutes, nudging it forward until they sense it and start to chew.It is as though they become insensitive to the smell that used to draw them close, and yet the reaction from another smell is as before. Chew, it says - and they do.

Meanwhile, another two cocoons have been made, one much smaller than the other. I learnt recently that the males produce bigger cocoons so maybe I have one male and one female. I think I will keep these now and let them develop. I think in a few days I shall cut them open so I can see the developing pupa - it is not supposed to harm them.

I should also like to see moths again, and maybe start the cycle again, just once more...


Thursday, April 09, 2009

Book Blogging Survey

I've just done Crime Fiction Reader's Book Blog Survey. I don't normally like these things, but that was fun. Excellent questions, and just the right length. Please do go over there and have a go if you have the chance.

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Insect Physiology and Biochemistry by James L Nation

The local library rang - a book too expensive for me to buy had arrived there from the British Library. I have it until the 27th April.

It is called Insect Physiology and Biochemistry by James L Nation. As usual, when I borrow a book from the library, when I leaf through and see what's inside I just wish I owned it. There is so much fascinating information in here that I honestly feel excited when I look through it.

It consists of a series of short chapters on different topics with many diagrams and pages of references at the end of each. The effect is rather like anthology of short stories and it is fun dipping into each one. The first one talks about programmed cell death and a gene called reaper which 'plays a major role in the control of apoptosis in drosophila' which strikes me as witty, and then, to my great delight, there are photographs of imaginal discs. It's clearly written, and easily understandable even to a layperson like me. I think I am going to learn a lot this Easter weekend.

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Cocoon Preservation

Yesterday I laid my cocoons out on a baking sheet at the lowest setting of my oven (85 degrees C, about 180 degrees F)

and left them there for thirty minutes. This should preserve them until I am ready for the next stage - reeling. I have 200 altogether, enough, I think, to make a small piece of silk.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

The Witness by Juan José Saer (translated by Margaret Jull Costa).

In sixteenth century Spain an orphan boards a ship as a cabin boy. He sails to South America with a captain who has the menace of Kurz in 'Heart of Darkness'. They are attacked and the boy is taken prisoner. His encounter with 'the savages' is strange, gruesome and, I feel, an analogy for human life in general. The 'savages' are driven to do something that they don't like, and yet they must do it. It is a madness that comes over them, and this, it seems to me, is what the book is about. What drives them? Where does this drive come from? What does their reaction mean?

The boy becomes an adult while in captivity. By the time he is rescued he has a beard, and it is this that distinguishes him from the people that have captured him. Although he then leaves the savages, they are always with him. He is forever the outsider, forever the witness. He watches and tries to make sense of his subsequent life in terms of the life he knew then. Gradually memories of this earlier life surface: single people and singular actions are revisited and reappraised. It takes the memory of an eclipse for him to realise the true psyche of this people, and why they are driven to do what they do: a mixing of spiritualism and place. It is a great evocation of the cosmos of the hunter-gatherer, and therefore the primitive world of us all.
'In a place which was being transformed before their very eyes into the blackest night, the vanishing moon, which custom had convinced us was imperishable, was confirming by its natural extinction the ancient belief that, whether the Indians were conscious of it or not, manifested itself in every thought and action.'

The world is what we see, but all that we seem to see is just temporary, and can disappear without warning. In order to keep on existing we need to be remembered, we need to have a witness.

It is a short novel, but very rich. Although the protagonist's whole life is described, Saer chooses the depth of telling with skill: some events, like canibalism and the brief tribal descent into sexual depravity are picked out and described in great detail; whereas there are great stretches that are summed up more lightly.

It is a highly satisfying book, beautifully translated - the sort that enriches your life long after you've finished the last pages.

The book will be published on April 23rd by Serpent's Tail.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Cocoon Count


Saturday, April 04, 2009

What I'm Doing 28:

What I watched last:

The Mission
There were some great moments in this film, and I admired the way it was truly filmic. It showed by action rather than word. For instance, when the Robert de Niro character is pulling a net full of armour (as a penance for killing his brother) the Liam Neeson character watches him struggle for a while before cutting the ropes so the 'penance' falls away. The de Niro character then goes back and reattaches the rope, pointedly looking at Neeson as he does so. This is so much better than say, Neeson saying: 'Why don't you just leave it behind, you idiot?' And the de Niro character replying: 'Because I don't want to, jerk.' Or something like that .

It was about some great human themes: God and religion, innocence, goodness, power, redemption... However, the ending was grim and quite harrowing, and I had trouble working out what exactly it was saying except perhaps to show, once more, the hypocrisy of organised religion, and how those in religious authority forget what it's all about when their quest for power and domination become overwhelming.

The acting was superb, and I think I regard it more highly now than I did when I had just finished watching it. Some films are like that, I think - they seem to grow in my memory.

One of the best aspects, though, was the sound track. This was magnificent and moving and I've just downloaded it from itunes. Which brings me naturally on to...

What I'm listening to:

Soundtrack to the Mission.

This is wonderful, but there were some other vocal parts which I liked even more. I was delighted to find this score on itunes. Clearly I am not the only person who loved it.

What I'm Reading:

The Witness by Juan José Saer (translated by Margaret Jull Costa).

I picked this up at around three thirty this morning, and it seems to be the ideal complement to The Mission since this too is about a Hispanic encounter with a native population of South America (the 'Molucca Islands') but here the protangonist is not a missionary but a young cabin boy. As the quote on the front from the Irish Times says there are indeed shades of Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'. There is the same sense of foreboding, and also the same briskness in dealing with the tedium of travel. Saer gives an impression of distance with quick sketches and snatches of detail and, like 'The Mission' avoids dwelling too much on episodes like walking through jungle or sailing for days along a coast.

It starts beautifully: 'What I remember most about those empty shores is the vastness of the skies.' and the rest of the writing is gorgeous too - which must be a tribute to the translator as well as the author himself.

What I'm doing:
A worrying amount of work. Also, Hodmandod Major is visiting with his girlfriend (Hodmandod Majorette, heh) so I am occupied there too. Although French, I am happy to report that Hodmandod Majorette has refreshingly unorthodox culinary tastes. Her favourite meal, she says, is a curry-filled pizza. With a good Beaujolais, obviously (or, better, a Côtes du Rhone, as suggested by Eric the Blogless. Thank you Eric! And thanks for spotting my Liam misspelling too).

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Cocoon Count


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

My Creativity and Blogging Talk at the Nature Blogging Conference in 2008.

The Slideshare Team have just been in touch to tell me that my slideshow on creativity and blogging has

'... been getting a LOT of views in the last 24 hours. Great job...'

which was a nice surprise!

This encouraged me to add a few words to the bottom of each slide - which is something I've been meaning to do for some time.

The updated version is here. You have to download it to your own computer (see tab above presentation box) to see it in its full glory.