Friday, July 31, 2009

Shanghai Dreaming

This arrived yesterday: Urbanatomy Shanghai 2009 edited by Nick Land.

Glossy, wild, I desperately want to go there again.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Spinal Trap by Simon Singh

Today I am joining a large number of other blogs and magazines who are reproducing an edited version (copied from David Colquhoun's inspiring "DC's Improbable Science") of Simon Singh's article from the Guardian which resulted in the decision of the British Chiropractic Association to sue Singh for libel.

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

15,000 people have already signed Singh’s statement, "We the undersigned believe that it is inappropriate to use the English libel laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence." if you would like to add your name to the petition please do so here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is Literary Fiction?

I once had lunch with Patricia Duncker, and one of the things we talked about was what exactly is literary fiction. Literature, she said, could be classified into seven pillars, and it turned out what I thought was 'literary fiction' (ie wins awards and prizes of the non-genre sort - like the Booker Prize, the long-list of which has just come out today) could actually be considered, in the main, to be 'serious fiction' rather than literary. An example was the work of Ian MacEwan, and indeed the work of most of the writers I admire.

This 'serious fiction' pillar was a wide high one - much larger than the 'true literary fiction' pillar which has a feebler structure (my description). But what is in this literary fiction group and what defines it? I've been trying to answer that question today and have found some good quotes mainly from this website.

Literary fiction:

"... (consists of ) books that really draw you in with language, imagery, character insight and sense of place." Judi Clark

"...(is) complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemas." Joyce Saricks.

"...(is) critically acclaimed, often award-winning, fiction...more often character-centered rather than plot-oriented."

or is it, as Robert McCrum has heard from various people, 'highbrow', 'pretentious' 'unreadable' 'dull' with 'trendy stylistic gimmicks'?

However, I think those first few quotes could apply equally well to what Patricia Duncker referred to as 'serious fiction' too. So these quotes don't really answer my question - what is literary fiction?

Maybe in true literary fiction there is not a story and the focus is entirely style. If this is the case then I am beginning to think that I don't like true literary fiction very much at all. Nothing happens. The characters spend the entire book smugly making clever jokes to themselves for the reader to admire from a distance. There is usually much evidence of literary knowledge, and this is paraded at every opportunity, so that readers with a similar education can smirk knowingly and feel included in some special smug club. I sometimes come across books like this, and after a few pages I throw them down - and once, after being particularly annoyed, threw one particular book right across the room. It landed cover side down and was completely undamaged. Now that, it occurs to me, is probably something you can't do with a Kindle.

Monday, July 27, 2009

An Interview with P.D. Smith

A week or so ago I reviewed a book called the Doomsday Men - an all-encompassing cultural history of the weapons of mass destruction by P.D. Smith. I am delighted that he has now agreed to answer a few questions about his impressive book and the usual general questions.


P.D. Smith is an independent researcher and writer. His most recent book is Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon (Penguin, 2007; St Martin's Press/ US; Companhia das Letras /Brazil). He is currently writing a cultural history of cities for Bloomsbury, and an essay '‘Gentlemen: You are mad!’: Mutual Assured Destruction and Cold War Culture' is due to appear in ' The Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History', edited by Professor Dan Stone.

His previous books are Metaphor and Materiality: German Literature and the World-View of Science 1780-1955 and a biography of Einstein (Haus, 2003). He has taught at University College London where he is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies. He regularly reviews books for the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement, and has also written for the Independent and the Financial Times among other journals. He lives in Hampshire.


Questions about the Doomsday Men.

CD: You give various contenders for the 'award' of atomic Dr Strangelove. Who would you choose for the title?
PDS: Peter George, the British author who wrote the novel and the screenplay on which Stanley Kubrick’s film is based, clearly had Hitler’s rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, in mind. What’s great about Dr Strangelove is that he’s an amalgam of scary figures, both fictional (e.g. Dr No or Rotwang) and real (e.g. John von Neumann, Herman Kahn). But if you pushed me, I’d have to say physicist Edward Teller, aka ‘Mr H-Bomb’. His plans for new nukes and their uses were truly Strangelovean.

CD: Your book is the fullest account of the evolution of weapons of mass destruction that I have ever encountered. How long did it take you to do the research and write the book?
PDS: From signing the contract to publication took three years. Obviously there was a fair bit of what you might call research & development before that.

CD: It is also full of fascinating facts such as Winston Churchill's use of chemical weapons against Iraq in 1920. Are there any pieces of information that were particularly difficult to find, and therefore a bit of a 'coup'?

PDS: The story of the cobalt bomb had not been told before. It was perfect to illustrate my broader theme about how fiction and science merge in the history of what we now call weapons of mass destruction. So the main research challenge was to search through the newspapers, journals and popular culture from 1890 to 1965, tracking down references to scientific superweapons, saviour scientists and mad scientists. Every time I came across a mention of the cobalt bomb I was barely able to suppress a Strangelovean cackle!

CD: Which of the scientists you describe do you particularly admire?
PDS: Einstein’s friend, Leo Szilard. I first came across Szilard while writing a biography of Einstein in 2003. He was such an intriguing character – a scientist, inventor, activist and even a writer of short stories. One friend described him as ‘an extraordinarily sweet and calmly desperate genius’. Another friend said he was ‘the inventor of all things’ because he was constantly fizzing with new scientific and technological ideas. One of these was the cobalt bomb, a doomsday device that could spread lethal fallout around the whole world. But he was an idealist, not a Strangelove. The C-bomb was meant to shock people out of the arms race. In the cold war he became a one-man peace movement lobbying scientists and politicians. He was dynamic, outspoken, and brilliant, but at times he could also be infuriating. A true genius!

CD: Were there any scientists you could not understand at all - in terms of what they did?
PDS: The Japanese microbiologist Shiro Ishii. His work developing biological weapons for the Japanese military during the 1930s and 40s involved the most appalling crimes against humanity. He escaped prosecution only because the Americans wanted to use his research in the cold war arms race with the Soviets.

CD: A unique aspect of the book is the way you have brought in popular culture. It seems that some of these authors, like HG Wells, inspired the imagination of these scientists, and so in some way were partly responsible for what happened - as some of what they predicted came true. Do you think the same might happen today? Can you think of any speculative writer today that might be having a similar influence - or has that time passed?
PDS: At the heart of Doomsday Men is our culture’s misguided belief that there are technological solutions to human problems. Authors helped to create that myth. In the first half of the twentieth century, their stories and novels popularized the idea that atomic energy and the superweapon would abolish war and bring about Utopia. But, as films like Dr Strangelove show, such idealism was in short supply during the cold war. Today I hope we’re a bit more skeptical about what science can and can’t do. But speculative fiction remains very influential in society. In fact, US government departments actually consult science fiction writers like Greg Bear on matters such as possible future terror attacks, as the Washington Post recently reported.

CD: I thought the epilogue, where you describe your family history gave a satisfying and personal touch to the story. Did your research help you to understand the contrasting attitudes of your family to war?
PDS: Yes, that was unexpected. My grandfather was in the Grenadier Guards and fought in France throughout World War I . He saw action at Loos where the British used the new German superweapon, poison gas, for the first time. He never talked about the horrors of trench warfare, but his son – my father – later became a pacifist and as a young man took part in CND marches. It was a powerful reminder that in the end history is about ordinary people – fighting in the trenches, taking part in protest marches. They’re the ones who suffer when the calculations of the Dr Strangeloves go wrong.

General Questions

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
PDS: I have to admit that I try to have as little to do with snails as possible. I like them to stay in the compost bin. My failing, I know…

CD: What is your proudest moment?
PDS: Holding the hardback copy of Doomsday Men.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
PDS: Sorry – can’t think of one!

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
PDS: Finding out that my father had cancer.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
PDS: I’d like a photographic memory. Then I wouldn’t have to take so many notes…

CD: What is happiness?
PDS: A moment shared.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
PDS: Switch on the Today Program on Radio 4.

There is a radio interview with P.D. Smith on Imperial Radio here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Kindle: Pros and Cons

For an excellent post on the Kindle (in this case one called 'Rupert') see Deblog.

Sunday Salon: three books.

At the moment I have three books on the go at once: The Turing Test by Chris Beckett (science fiction short stories); The Lure of China by Frances Wood (an account of various writers' attitudes to China) and Mortification edited by Robin Robertson ('writers' stories of their public shame').

The Turing Test I am enjoying mostly for its ideas and incredible imaginary leaps. For instance the story I'm reading now is about a world that exists alongside the physical world. It is 'Dotlands' where the social class is evoked by resolution and colour. High resolution people turn out to be actual organic people while the rest are a lower class. The lowest class are evoked by merely a line for a mouth and two dots for eyes. A tramp, for instance, is barely there - and when he does make his presence apparent he is a frightening apparition. It is an excellent metaphor for the poor in society; we only deign to notice them when they gather enough pixels together to become violent.

The narrator, Lemmy, becomes obsessed with a high resolution white hart, and when he chases after it encounters the 'Perimeter of the Urban Consensual Field' and an elderly woman who is beautiful because she is picked out in full colour and high resolution. She is part of the real world, a world that is in fact dying out while the low resolution world gathers strength. She alone chooses to see the lower resolutions, and for that she needs to keep her implants switched on. It reminds me a little of the film 'The Truman Show' and also Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris.

The Lure of China is a beautifully presented little book, and quite fascinating. The two most famous early accounts of China in the west were Marco Polo's account of 1271 and Sir John Mandeville's of 1356. For years these were both held in great esteem but it eventually turned out that both may have been based on hearsay rather than experience because there is a lot that does not make historical sense. For instance cities that are now known to have been previously sacked when these adventurers claim to have visited are described by them as flourishing and intact.

Frances Wood says they were written at a time when there was a fashion for romantic tales of adventure, and it is suspected that these subscribed to that genre rather than the travelogue of a real journey. But still, those accounts are interesting for their fantasy: golden wine dispensers operated by a child inside; walls of gold, silver, and studded with precious stones; cities containing not just houses but mountains and marbled-bridged lakes; and the citizens resplendent in shining silks. Maybe they were "The Turing Test"s of the thirteenth century.

Mortification is just plain funny. The accounts have different styles but they are all easy to read, and most of them are entertaining. I think my favourite to date has been Deborah Moggach's and her conversation with librarians who have invited her to give a talk.
'We've been looking at your photo,' they said, 'and trying to decide if you're vegetarian.' 'What did you decide?' I asked. 'That you weren't.' I took this as a compliment.
The rest is equally funny. She also makes me realise something important: although I have had some similar bizarre experiences and encountered some difficult situations as a writer, all of these famous authors have too. It is sobering, and also makes me realise that actually, most of the time, I was treated quite well.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Today, a little Mortification arrived in the post. It is a book edited by Robin Robertson and its subtitle is 'Writers' Stories of their Public Shame' as recommended to me by P.D. Smith. It is hilarious.

There is nothing a group of authors like more than to outdo each other with tales of mortification, and reading this book has caused me to remember one my own.

My book had just come out. I was excited. I was expecting something to happen - I wasn't quite sure what, but not this.

A librarian rang me. She wanted a female author for their Orange event. Lots of people had professed an interest so they thought they would combine it with a little scheme they had to initiate a reading group. Could I come and tell them how I'd come to get my book published?

I spent several hours preparing my talk. I drove up to the library about fifty miles distant in light drizzle. It took me some time to find but I arrived with about fifteen minutes to spare. The place was festooned with orange balloons, orange paper plates and napkins, numerous bottles of wine - red and white - were open on the table. There were nibbles of many varieties, badges, streamers, books on display...

"Over forty people have taken tickets!" One of the librarians told me excitedly. "There's been such a lot of interest." We sipped orange juice and waited.

And waited.
"Bound to be late," one of younger librarians said. "Nobody like to be early."
An older librarian munched thoughtfully on a twiglet. "Such a shame we missed the Chronicle."

"How much were the tickets?" I asked.
"Free. People just took them as they went through the door."

When a middle-aged hippy in a long dress and beads walked in we mobbed her. She sat in the middle of the front row of rows of empty seats looking quite pleased to be the centre of such attention.

It was unfortunate she came. It meant I had to give my talk: earnestly and awkwardly. Everyone paid avid attention and laughed too loudly. At the end we overdosed on crisps. Each librarian bought one of my newly published books sent to the library in a box by my publisher.

It was dark when it ended and the drizzle was still going strong.

It didn't seem so funny then. There were roadworks and the journey back was slow. Hodmandod Senior was waiting up for me and I disconsolately turned on my computer before I went to bed. An email pinged in. I still have it:

"You have asked for comments about your book "Wegener's Jigsaw", and I feel I have some constructive things to say about it.

Reviews of the book praise it as magnificently written and beautiful, as having a poetic style.

But surely, it is written in a flat, dull, prosaic, mechanical, one thing after another, matter-of-fact style. I have read in it again and again and just cannot see how the style could be called poetic.

There are often what surely can only strike a reader as irrelevant observations thrown in (possibly intended as colour?).

I feel a reader can surely only experience it as an over-long, tedious, unrewarding read.

The standard of writing of the book does not seem to be what would be expected of an adequate Creative Writing teacher.

I read your book because I know someone interested in the geological subject matter, and I wanted to see if I might be able to say it was worth their reading it. I can only say it is a very poor read that I cannot recommend.

As I read it now I am surprised to find that it still hurts - even after 6 years. It seemed such a vindictive thing to write - but then this book business can be such a mean vindictive business.

But that incident at the library was funny.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger.

A few months ago Serpent's Tail sent me a review copy of Kate Pullinger's 'The Mistress of Nothing' which I have just had the pleasure of reading. My review of the book follows, and Kate has kindly agreed to answer a few questions. The interview and a short biography are below.


Certain imprints have a certain style: Serpent's Tail, for instance, I always think of as 'a bit edgy'. They, after all, have brought us (perhaps most famously) Lionel Shriver's 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' (about a boy who murders his fellow students), Jonathan Trigell's 'Boy A' by (another child murdering child), Daniel Davies's Isle of Dogs (about sex between strangers in car parks), and Patricia Duncker's 'Hallucinating Foucault' (a homosexual writer's obsession with a lunatic asylum patient). They have also published one of Kate's previous books, 'A Little Stranger' (which the Guardian described as 'pleasantly disturbing'). They tend to be based in the present (or recent past) about difficult issues - and are challenging and thought-provoking reads.

At first 'The Mistress of Nothing' by Kate Pullinger seems to be different. It is an historical novel. The sexual coupling is not explicit. The first half of the book seems rooted in the well-written conventional setting of 'the Empire'. It is thoroughly enjoyable but not, apparently, Serpent's Tail fare. The maid is loyal in the devoted nineteenth century way. The mistress has tuberculosis and the two go down the Nile in search of hot air and a cure. There is a scene involving wet cupping that is graphic but it soon passes - most of the time we are on the river with Sally languidly wishing our clothes were a little less constraining and we could bare a hand or a leg and dangle them in the water.

Eventually, of course, something happens to change all this. No one can resist the eroticism of Egypt for long. Bodies sweat, become curious, then wake despite themselves. It is then that the expertise of the writer becomes apparent. The desultory and arid setting of the Nile becomes the necessary background for the rest of the book. Like all of us, Sally is capable of misinterpreting people. Her mistress, Lady Lucie Duff Gordon (a historical figure) is courageous and has always helped people in distress, and so when she says: 'I'm not surprised Sally Naldrett, to find you capable of this.' Sally believes it is clearly an indication of her admiration of her loyal maid.

What happens next is shocking, sad and believable. People are not consistent; Lady Duff Gordon shows herself to be modern in that she is liberated, fearless and charitable - but only to those who suit her self-image. As Madonna 'rescues' a child from an orphanage in Milawi with a great fanfare ... into the arms of a nanny, so Lady Duff Gordon treats the poor villagers around her, while in her quieter private life she is less valiant. And it becomes apparent that 'The Mistress of Nothing' is a Serpent's Tail book after all - just as edgy and thought-provoking - but a more subtle, nineteenth century version.


Kate Pullinger was born in Canada, and moved to London in 1982 where she still lives. She is the author of Tiny Lies, a collection of short stories, and the novels When the Monster Dies and Weird Sister. She collaborated with Jane Campion on the novel of the film The Piano, and has written for film, television and radio. She is currently lecturer in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University.


Questions about 'The Mistress of Nothing'

CD: You've written highly acclaimed books with contemporary and historical settings. Why did you choose to write a novel set in the nineteenth century?' KP: In 1995, when I first read Katherine Frank’s wonderful biography, ‘Lucie Duff Gordon’, I was grabbed by the story of Sally and Omar and that Christmas Eve on a boat on the Nile. To tell you the truth, I’m not that big of a fan of historical fiction, but this story really compelled me; I am a big fan of Egypt though, so learning about Egypt during this period – the building of the Suez Canal, etc., was fascinating. But the period also caused problems – the Victorians are so familiar to us and in many ways the territory is full of clichés – Victorian Lady Travellers, orientalism, etc.

CD: Was there much to go on?
KP: Well, Lucie Duff Gordon’s life is well known and well documented, but nothing is known about what happened to Sally Naldrett. But the fact that there was so little to go on with regards to Sally gave me a lot of freedom when it came to figuring out a story for her. I think if her life had been better documented I wouldn’t have wanted to write the novel.

CD: Egypt comes through clearly and vividly in this novel - and I see that you had grants from the Author's Foundation to enable you to travel there. What did you learn through travelling to Egypt that helped you to bring the setting so alive?
KP: Well, I’ve only been to Egypt twice, once when I was in my 20s and I travelled with a friend for several weeks, and then again, three days in Luxor, in 1999, using that grant from the Author’s Foundation you mention. I was frustrated that I couldn’t get to Egypt more (lack of money, two small children, etc) but I consoled myself by reminding myself that I couldn’t ever travel to Luxor in 1863. But having been there twice helped a lot, and those three days in Luxor were crucial. Luxor isn’t all that different from how it would been in Sally’s time; at night the tourists all get back on their boat-hotels and the town reverts to a sleepy village. I spent a lot of time in Luxor Temple, figuring out where the French House must have been (there are photos of it), looking at the sky, at the Nile at night. Egyptian ruins are the most beautiful ruins I’ve ever seen, and I’m fascinated by modern Egypt and they way it lives with, ignores, and celebrates, its ancient past.

CD: Did you have any difficulties finding out how different nineteenth century Egypt was from modern Egypt?
KP: My main source of research in that regard was reading novels by Egyptians, in particular, of course, the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. These books are set at the very beginning of the twentieth century, but the family life as it is depicted then would have been very similar to family life fifty years earlier. Also, in the 1860s Egypt was in the midst of a phase called its Belle Époque and there’s been a fair amount written about that. I did a lot of reading around the lives of Victorian domestic servants as well, though there is surprisingly little written about that.

CD: I thought the problems with dress came over very well indeed. How did you go about researching this?
KP: The story about Lucie Duff Gordon abandoning European dress is in Katherine Frank’s biography, so I just extrapolated from that. Of course, removing those clothes is hugely significant – the way we all dress has significance beyond covering up our bodies. And the details about Sally wearing Lucie’s cast off clothes, adapting them for her own use – this was common in all those households.

CD: Are there any members of Lady Lucie Duff Gordon's family alive today? Have they read your novel?
KP: The eminent historian Antony Beevor is Lucie Duff Gordon’s great-great-grandson. He has read the novel now, and I believe he has written something about it for the national press. Stay tuned.

General Questions

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
KP: My nine year old loves snails and tries to shield them from the wrath of her father, the gardener. When I was 19 I dropped out of university and went to live in the Yukon Territory, northern Canada. Oddly enough, there was a very good French restaurant in Whitehorse, which is otherwise a rough and ready town of miners and actual gold-diggers. My brother-in-law and I used to go eat there and I used to always have escargot. Mind you, I used to eat steak tartare as well. However, one year later I became a vegetarian and now the idea of escargot fills me with horror!

CD: What is your proudest moment?
KP: As a parent one has many moments when you almost burst with the most ridiculous pride. However, for myself, I guess one of the most amazing moments in my life was when, out of the blue, I had a letter from an editor at Jonathan Cape, saying how much she liked my short stories, and did I have more stories as they were interested in publishing a collection. This letter arrived on Christmas Eve. I was 26. Publishing has changed so much since then, an event like that would never happen now, or at least, it would be very very unlikely to happen.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
KP: See above!

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
KP: This is hard – it’s either got to be something that is in fact so awful it is almost beyond comprehension – the terrifying genocide in Rwanda – or so banal as to be ridiculous – the day I dropped my iPhone on a stone and shattered its lovely face.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
KP: Ha ha! Lord knows – too many to mention – the fact my hair went grey when I was in my twenties and now that I’m in my 40s is almost completely white, too white to dye?!

CD: What is happiness?
KP: Writing fiction, for books or for my digital projects. And then not writing fiction and going on holiday to places that are hot and dry with my family where I can swim, read, and drink chilled wine.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
KP: Put on my spectacles. Can’t function otherwise.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Spitalfields Silk.

This book is going back to the library now, where it will no doubt return to the vaults.

It waited a long time for its place in the light,

and for about eight weeks I have had it on my desk - dipping in, trying to take notes. It was published around 1912, when colour prints are clearly something precious and rare; each one is faced with some transparent paper, as if the colour isn't quite fast and will smudge onto the facing page if not protected.

It's a huge volume of 664 pages, and it took a great deal of effort to glean the grains from the quite considerable amount of chaff, but what I loved most, I think, were the interviews with silk workers, and then the way the author explored their homes. I concentrated on the silkworkers of Spitalfields in London.

There were three classes of silk worker: the weaver who worked and lived alongside his loom on the upper floor of his house (this photo is from Macclesfield, but I am sure the houses in Spitalfields were very similar).

These people were poor. They were small, badly nourished, pale and ill. They worked continually, the parents and children each with specific tasks: punching out cards for the Jacquard looms, preparing the warp and weft, patterning, threading the looms and of course the business shooting the shuttle back and forth - all in servitude to queen silk. They ate where they worked, tied their children to their stations, and carried on until there was no longer enough light to see. Sundays were their only day of rest, and then the children played for a few hours outdoors while the mother made the only hot meal of the week.

At the other end of the social scale were the merchants. These lived in grand house in Spital Square. They organised the weavers and traded their cloth, and Sir Frank Warner describes going into one of these houses too. In the basement was spare machinery, on the ground floor a warehouse and a place where silk skeins and finished bales were brought in, weighed and then collected. Here the weavers waited on benches in a narrow corridor for their work to be examined. I imagine them nervous and subservient, completely dependent on the mood of the merchant.

On the first floor was where the merchant's family lived - in a room full of Victorian paraphernalia: inelegant large mahogany furniture, window seats, portraits of the family, a few books, and then, along one wall, the ultimate symbol of social advancement: a piano with a fancy silk rosette on the front. Another indication of their affluent life was the fortnight the family spent in Margate each summer in the same boarding house, year after year.

Only one of these houses survives - 37 Spital Square, and here it is on Street View in Google maps (the darker building) - it and its immediate neighbours sandwiched between the modern glass towers of that part of the East End.

View Larger Map

It is headquarters of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings established by William Morris (coincidentally a silk enthusiast and one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement).

Between the weavers and the merchants - geographically, socially and financially - were the skilled craftsmen and tradesmen who also served the silk industry. They made the looms, for example, or bought in supplies for the upper classes.

One thing that comes over clearly is that whatever their income these people were, in general, proud of what they did. They kept samples of their cloth - bits of velvet in rich colours, or a complicatedly patterned brocade, or a shimmering piece of satin - in boxes or in frames and stuck them on the wall.

They also loved the sounds of birds and kept linnets, canaries and fancy pigeons in cages where they worked or in the yards, which were devoted to another of their passions - flowers and mulberry trees. They were a peaceful, conventional and home-loving people - even though these homes became steadily more dismal and impoverished as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth. There were no drains or sewage systems and any rubbish was simply thrown out onto the unpaved dirt track of the street. As the population grew the gardens were converted into pigsties and chicken runs. Sir Frank Warner describes houses with more paper in the window frames than glass, where goods were bought with charity slips, and the only relief was in the escapism and dreams of astrological readings. But in the mid-nineteenth century things became even worse.

In 1861, despite protests from the London silk industry, the government agreed 'free trade' with France. This, in fact, was only free in one direction - no duty on goods going into the UK, but 30% on UK goods going into France. As predicted the effect was devastating on Spitalfields (although beneficial to the UK textile industry as a whole). Cheap silk from France flooded in and the East End could not compete. Only the craftsmen who wove the more expensive silk survived. The majority of weavers had to find other employment - in the textile factories in the northof England perhaps, or in some other trade entirely, and it was this that caused them to disperse: out of Spitalfields to adjacent parishes or to another area entirely.

Within a few years Spitalfields was no longer an area of silk, and two hundred years of a unique British industry ended.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Slug Courtship: Preliminary Rituals.

One of my preoccupations in life are slugs. Some time ago I posted something on tiger slugs, and another blogger just contacted me to tell me she had seen a couple courting in her garden and taken photographs. I (of course!) found this very interesting.

My exquisite corpses

Here are my two 'exquisite corpses'. The first one was a bit rough...

but represented a lot of what science means to me (from the top left hand corner and going round clockwise):
DNA profiling, from when I did little work on finding a fluorescent DNA probe);
an electronic circuit representing the relay circuits I made for a surface acoustic wave gas detector;
the head and the hooked molecules represents psychiatry and my novel on Heinrich Hoffmann;
a conical flask representing my years as a chemist;
a light bulb representing an ill-fated book proposal on the eureka moment;
water molecules to represent my time as water analyst;
cells dividing (represents my little foray into immunology for another ill-fated book proposal);
chains of aromatic molecules, representing my PhD project;
volcanoes and plate movements representing my novel on Alfred Wegener;
a little diagram representing biological cycles of the silkworm sort;
various hazard symbols (representing my teaching days)
and finally an H-bomb cloud and 'hard rain' because after reading P D Smith's Doomsday Men it is in the fore front of my mind.

The second one is a bit more colourful and simple. Hodmandod Senior kindly helped me out drawing some of this on the computer. Then I stuck drawings on on top. There are similar ideas to the first one but instead of a general cycle I simply have a silkmoth laying eggs...

Please have a go. The organiser, Tim Jones, would appreciate entries from everyone. Details are here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

My Happy Little Problem which one next.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Doomsday Men by PD Smith

I've probably mentioned before that my school was the progressive unconventional sort: no uniform and we were expected to call our teachers by their first names. It was a true comprehensive, had an egalitarian philosophy and one of the subjects everyone had to take was 'Community Studies'. It was combined with 'English' (which was neither literature or language but a bit of both) and took up a large portion of the week. There were about 80 of us taught together in a large room - a mixed ability class and I know of only two of the class that stayed on to the sixth form. As part of this course (after some debate and warning of its content) they showed us a public information film which I think must have been this, The War Game (WARNING: THIS FILM IS TRULY DISTURBING):

Strangely, I don't remember this film perturbing any of us much at all. I think it seemed too much like fiction.

I'm looking at it again now because I've just finished reading the Doomsday Men by P.D. Smith, and now, because of this book, I see it with an increased awareness. There are descriptions in the book about what happened in Hiroshima that resonate and then horrify: the initial flash that fries eyes and removes skin, and then shock wave and the firestorm before the fall out.

'Fall out' was a term I've thought about a lot but the concept of a 'firestorm' is new to me. I'd heard the word, but now that I've read the Doomsday Men I know what it really means to those unfortunate enough to be caught sheltering in a confined space like a cellar in the midst of a conflagration. The oxygen was catastrophically replaced by gases like carbon monoxide and methane and so tens of thousands of people died in firestorms caused by incendiary attack in Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo. After reading that I thought of the time I went to Hamburg and spoke to people there. Some of them were old enough to remember. I wonder now how we could look at each other in the eye.

The Doomsday Men is the full history of the twentieth century's obsession with weapons of mass destruction: not just the nuclear arms race but the advent of chemical warfare and biological warfare. It has impressive range and depth, but that is just one part of the book. The other part is how society and media (in particular writers and film-makers) reacted, interacted and sometimes even initiated these dreams of annihilation. It includes not just the literary, highly regarded fiction and film, but the pulp. The pulp is perhaps the more important of the two
when reflecting the reaction of society, because this is what most people read; and from that we can guess that the concept of a man-made doomsday seemed to be preoccupying everyone. These two aspects of the book are married together very neatly by the question who were the real Doomsday Men (as typified by Peter Sellers' depiction of Dr Strangelove in Kubrick's masterpiece) - as well as a repeating motif, it makes an excellent narrative hook.

It turns out there were three Dr Strangeloves - one for each scientific discipline. For chemistry there is the German genius Fritz Haber who successfully deployed chlorine gas in the first world war trenches; for biology there is the Japanese scientist Shiro Ishii who killed tens of thousands of people in occupied China with his experiments into germ warfare ; but electing who is to be the Dr Strangelove of physics is more problematic because there are various contenders. I suppose, after reading P. D. Smith's account, if I had to chose one I would chose Edward Teller. Enrico Fermi said he was 'the only monomaniac he knew with a number of manias', and in press reports of the time he was dubbed 'Mr H-Bomb.'

I suppose the story of the Doomsday Men has been a constant background to my life. Most of the time I have successfully pushed it to the back of my mind because it seemed too frightening and too impossible to be true. But reading the Doomsday Men has forced me to confront it and understand. Recently the threat of weapons of mass destruction has been overshadowed by natural plagues, global warming and economic crisis, but it is still there. It can still happen. And in the Doomsday Men there is a gripping account of when, in 1962, it nearly did.

I was too young to be aware of the Cuban crisis but after reading about this story I remember another time, slightly later, when there was something on the car radio and my parents discussed it in worried tones. I think they thought that I hadn't heard them, but I had. We were on our way to a big department store in the middle of Leicester. It was the most solid and dependable thing in my world. Then, soon after we got there, I found myself alone.

It was not the unexpected isolation that worried me, but the realisation that the floor was shaking. Something was coming and no one could stop it. I stood still and looked around me. All this could go. The walls could fall away and it would be as though none of us had ever existed. Even this huge edifice to mammon could be vapourised - and not by an act of God, but by a human finger touching a button. For those few paralyzing seconds, before I realised that the shaking signified little more than heavy machinery, I appreciated the fragility of us all, and how dependent we are on the sanity of a few others. Even though the world has changed a lot since then we are still dependent on such restraint.

It took me close to a week to read the Doomsday Men but I am glad that I did (and glad too that I came across its author, Peter Smith, through the web - we now share an agent). It is a tremendously rich and rewarding book, a magnificent accomplishment - and, I think, an important one.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Exquisite Corpse of Science.

My old Mac laptop (2 models ago) had a transparent cover into which you could insert the picture of your choice - and various possibilities.

The one I chose resembled the picture here called 'The Exquisite Corpse' - a collaborative surrealist technique, rather like the game of consequences I used to play as a child. Reading about it I realise I also used to use it to generate ideas when I taught creative writing. Each participant would invent a characteristic for a character - and this character, generated randomly, could be used in a piece of writing.

Tim Jones of Imperial College, London*, has used the technique to generate pictures of what science means to various individuals and has made a film of the result. Now he wants to expand the project to include other people. The instructions on how to get involved in what could be the biggest Sci-Art Project in History are here - and I definitely intend to have a go as soon as I get the chance...

It is open to anyone. All you have to do is draw what science means to you and send it in.

*Edited later from 'University of London' - see comments.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Salon: Two books

At the moment I am reading two books: The Doomsday Men by P.D. Smith and The Turing Test by Chris Beckett. The first is non-fiction, the second fiction, and I am finding that they complement each other very well.

The Doomsday Men I started reading some time ago, but then got diverted by my research, so I am pleased to have the chance to get back to it now. It is basically a search for the real Dr Strangelove - the scientist of mass destruction as conjured up by the media in the twentieth century and earlier.

It combines a history of atomic, chemical and (I suspect, though I haven't got to this yet) biological warfare with the history of how these were portrayed in books and film. I am learning about Goethe's Dr Faust, Shelley's Frankenstein, as well as various works by H G Wells. At the same time I am acquiring an excellent overview of this branch of scientific history. The two are married together surprisingly well by the motif of Strangelove. He comes in fleetingly like a Hitchcockian extra, or like a subtle symbol in a poem or piece of literature. It is foreboding.

The Turing Test was the surprising winner of the Edgehill short story competition. It was published by the now defunct Elastic Press, and it is really very good. Chris Beckett, apparently, is a quiet author who doesn't tend to shout or promote himself, but has been successfully writing science fiction for decades.

The eponymous first story is about a woman who becomes fixated with a virtual personal assistant who arrives in her computer in a viral way when another virtual PA of a (real) friend decides the woman could benefit from a PA's services. The first PA therefore reproduces herself and sends this version to the woman's computer. The PAs talk to each other and from the information they generate evolve - in order, they say, to improve what they do. But of course this could also hide a more sinister motive.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

In search of the Huguenots

The Huguenots, I heard, settled just outside the London city wall.

They took up residence in streets with names that bear witness to their trade

but now gleam with the harder lustre of glass.

The museum of London is at the centre of this new development.

When I asked if they had any record of the Huguenots I was told that, for now, the history of London ended at 1666. Before the fire or the plague, and Daniel Defoe (who is buried close by)

was but a child of five, and Beech Street

another of the Huguenot streets, was yet to be lined in beech trees, or set ringing with the sound of caged birds and clattering looms.

There is nothing left now. The houses of the Huguenots long razed to the ground. Temporary tunnels

connect one busy road to the next, and one tower block to another. Few look up, or around, or wonder at what there was, and few, I suspect, notice this

a ghost cycle, one of many that are chained to posts throughout the capital: white and without pedals or chain. A memorial to a cyclist fatally caught mid-journey.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Lived in London edited by Emily Cole.

Last night I went to the English Pen summer party. It was in a lovely old house along a busy high street in Notting Hill Gate, the sort of place I don't think I'd have noticed if I'd happened to be rushing past. The door, in a porch, was grand and black with polished brass fittings. A man who had stopped there too rang the bell and we were welcomed inside. When the door closed behind us everything seemed to change; it became quieter and more peaceful, as if that couple of steps had taken us into a different time.

The rooms were tastefully arranged with musical instruments, small tables and chairs; in a dining room there was a great table laden with plates of roasted vegetables, cold meats and pieces of quiche, and next to it another stacked with bottles of wine and glasses. Then, through an open door, under a canopy of heavy wisteria blossom, was a walled garden with smoothly carved figures, fountains and benches. A small jazz band played beside some French windows, and soon the place was pleasantly full of people. I talked to several writers: Amit Sole and then Jeremy Cameron and then a man who wrote plays for disadvantaged people. I had to leave too early, but as I rushed out to catch my train, I came across this:

a blue plaque on the side of the building at the front. I had not much time to take in the name or the occupation of the man who once lived here, but thanks to this book

'Lived in London' this photo was all that I needed to discover the story.

According to the book, Muzio Clementi was (1752 - 1832) is known as the father of the pianoforte, and lived in this house from 1818 until 1823. He was born in Rome, became an organist at a young age, then came to England under a patron called Peter Beckford. He was so talented that in 1781, whilst travelling on the continent, he was drawn into a famous musical competition with Mozart - which ended with Emperor Joseph II declaring a draw. By 1817 he had turned from performance to composition, teaching and business, and it was in this house in Kensington Church Street that he presumably wrote his most famous pieces including this one:

This is Chelsea Dock, who is aged just 6, playing Muzio Clementi's Sonatina in C Major.

Of course I had no idea of all of this when I was sitting in the window seat of the window you can see above, listening to the jazz band. But maybe Muzio once sat exactly where I was sitting, vaguely aware of the oak panelling and the view to the garden, and judging from an old photograph in the book the house has changed very little since.

'Lived in London' goes on to describe two other people who lived at this address, but were not considered important enough to be honoured with a plaque; they were another musician called William Horsley (1774- 1858) and his son John Callcott, a painter. The Horsleys were visited regularly by yet another composer, Felix Mendelssohn. I find this sort of information fascinating, and it is the sort you are unlikely to find in a quick Google search.

London contains thousands of commemorative plaques, but this book concentrates on exactly 800: the blue plaques which commemorate people of note and the buildings associated with them. I've enjoyed leafing through it, looking for places that I know, and just wish I knew the various areas of London a little better. For instance it took me a little time to work out where Spitalfields would be since there is no overall map; but once I did (categorised as parts of Tower Hamlets) then I was very interested to come across the section on Anna Maria Garthwaite, a designer of silks in the eighteenth century. I had just been looking at her silk designs in the Victoria and Albert Museum,

and the day before been trying to find out where she lived. I'd wandered around the area close to the old London wall until my legs were aching - I wish now I had thought to consult this book first.

Anna Maria Garthwaite and Muzeo Clementi are two of the more obscure people in this book. There are many that are probably of more interest to more people: Charles Dickens's house down Doughty Street, for instance, which is now a museum. Doughty Street is an area that is particularly rich in blue plaques (I used to see them when I used to go and visit my former agent in John Street). The book could be used to either look up names or, and I think this is how I will tend to use it, to wander down streets and see who lived there. And of course now, thanks to Google's 'street view', it is possible to wander around London without leaving your desk. It could be a new game - strolling (virtually) around the capital looking for blue plaques. I think I might try that tomorrow. Either way would initiate discoveries of people and places and their stories.

As Stephen Fry points out in his introduction finding out where these people lived their lives is a powerful thing; somehow it makes us feel closer to them. By learning about where they walked we feel a physical familiarity with their lives. It is something I always tried to do when I started a novel. Whenever I have written about a person or a group of people I have visited their homes, and where they worked. I have stood outside where they once lived and tried to imagine how it felt like to be them. The setting is important to any story; and how it looks is only part of the experience. As a writer I have always felt that I needed to go there and listen, sniff and generally soak up the place. I also needed to know its history, and this book contains enough detail to not only satisfy the casual armchair investigator, but also makes a good starting point for those with a more intense interest.

Book sent to me for review by the publisher.


Monday, July 06, 2009

China Part 3: Towards a provisional itinerary.

Since the foreign office does not advise that females do not travel around China alone I have decided to enlist the help of a specialist Chinese tour agency. Unfortunately the situation is further complicated by ethnic unrest in one of the provinces I want to visit. I am hoping it will be more settled by the time I go. I think petty crime is my biggest danger

So far I intend to go to:

(i) Khotan: Hetian silk factory, places producing silk using more traditional methods, and the Hetian Cultural Museum.

(ii) Suzhou: Silk embroidery research centre and the silk museum.

(iii) Shanghai - silk markets and modern silk factories.

(iv) Train to Guangzhou. Try and speak to someone in the University Institute for Geography and go out to local silk farms to find places that depend on silkworm cultivation.

(v) I also hope to go and see a place that deals with silkworm research.

(vi) Maybe speak to some archeologists who can show me scraps of ancient silk.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sunday Salon: Ox-Tales

Yesterday was the official publication date of Ox-Tales: four beautifully produced books of short stories or extracts from unpublished novels. The royalties from the sale of the books will go straight to Oxfam. The launch is to coincide with Oxfam Bookfest. From July 4th - July 18th Oxfam's 139 bookshops will have unique events with three major events in London, Oxford and Edinburgh.

Each book has a theme: Earth (Livelihoods), Air (Climate Change), Fire (Conflict) and Water. I think part of the fun of reading the books will be to see how the stories reflect the theme.

I am starting with Volume 1: Earth. Oxfam helps thousands of small-scale farmers and producers to improve their lives through increased production and marketing - from cotton in India, vegetables in Honduras and rice in Tanzania - so I expect the stories to have something to do with this. The poem by Vikram Seth (each volume starts with a poem by Vikram Seth) is pretty wonderful. He describes a pot. In the first stanza it is filled with soil, in the second with clay, in the third with ash. Each time he turns it around and makes it the source of something new. It's a really optimistic poem, I thought, quite joyful.

The first story is by Rose Tremain, 'The Jester of Astapovo'. It is about the death of Leo Tolstoy and the effect it has on the life of the stationmaster of an isolated station called Astapovo. It makes the astute observation that a sense of humour can irritate and actually drive people apart: 'A joke is a contract with another human being.'

The idea of the earth comes in very subtly: Tolstoy is a man of the people, and the people are of the earth; the stationmaster is of the earth too. He has found his destination and it is to provide gladness to the people that pass by. It's a really good story - gripping and provocative.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


The inestimable Debra Hamel has an unbeatable competition on her blog this week. It is a chance to win her book TRYING NEIRA which a reviewer in the Sunday Telegraph described as '...gripping story of politics, sex and sleaze in ancient Athens......'. It is really an unexpectedly entertaining read. For instance, there is a section on radishes that I think will stay with me to the end of my days...

Friday, July 03, 2009

A Visit to Haworth and the birth place of the Brontës' novels.

From my house to Haworth Parsonage it is precisely 86 miles. Google maps calculates that if I were to walk it would take around forty hours. By the British convoluted railway system it took four and a half hours: five trains which zig-zagged across the countryside, going south in order to go north, then east to go west, culminating in this, from Keighley to Haworth:

a steam train arranged by the Society of Authors. This was yesterday's 'Authors North' summer social meeting and, following the meeting in Carnforth last year, a railway theme seems to be developing.

Haworth is something I'd never heard of before: 'an industrial village'. In the early part of the nineteenth century the industrial revolution took over the place, and turned a small agricultural settlement into a miniature version of Manchester. From the railway station

it is a short walk to the mill (photo below). According to Maurice Baren (a member who kindly provided us all with a sheet of information about Haworth) Haworth mill still does what it was built to do: house the looms that weave ribbons and braid. Inside this small block-like building various military paraphernalia is produced: officer ranking braid, sashes and chevron lace - all sorts of insignia to rank and designate, a way of establishing pecking order within the strange closed societies of the armed forces.

The Haworth Parsonage, I discovered, during the excellent talk given by the curator of the museum, was also a badge of honour. Parsonages and Vicarages are, traditionally, grand buildings - usually one of the largest in the village. It was to accord rank and respectability to the office of 'Minister' or 'Vicar' - a kind of medal from the parish. Since they tend to be built adjacent to the place of worship, which in turn tend to be built in the most prominent places possible, vicarages tend to be built on top of the local hill; and the Parsonage of Haworth was no exception.

So from the mill we had to climb a hill. Anna Ganley (from the Society of Authors) had warned us that crampons might be necessary, and I have to report she was exaggerating only very slightly. The inhabitants of Haworth much be extremely fit. From the mill we climbed one hill

and then another and then another. Half way up it was pointed out to us that during the Brontës' time these not only became a series of open sewers in times of heavy rainfall during the Brontës' time, but even worse, reportedly washed down the stinking effluent from the overcrowded Haworth graveyard.

Close to the top we passed by the 'Black Bull' pub where the Brontë brother Branwell bought his drink and laudanum (Edited from cocaine - thanks Steven Wood)

and then ducking through an alleyway past the church arrived at the Parsonage itself.

The talk was excellent and gave a surprising view of this apparently tranquil little place. The Brontës' father was a poor but outstandingly able Irishman. Although his children were brought up in style in the Parsonage the family had no money of their own which was why the girls were sent out to a boarding school for daughters of impoverished clergymen. Their only hope in life was to become governesses, and for this they needed a certain education. But they hated being away from home and the moors and did everything they could to go back there. Later, they seemed to become obsessed with finding a way of supporting themselves so they could stay there: writing novels seemed to be a possible method. Even though Haworth was a squalid dirty place with an average life expectancy of 25 there were compensations. At home they had books, and in the village there were societies which encouraged the villagers to improve themselves with classes and cultural opportunities like concerts. But, most important of all, the Brontës had each other. Together they invented their own private 'second life' complete with heroines, armies, newspapers and books. And it was out of this imaginary world came the novels of the most famous literary sisters in the world: Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.

After the talk we had a self-tour around the house which was filled with the Brontë's furniture, including, rather ghoulishly, the sofa where Emily died. It is quite a small house, the kitchen especially so.

Then, after a lunch at the nearby Baptist Chapel (chunky delicious sandwiches, warm scones and cream) we had a talk by Juliet Barker.

Juliet used to be a curator at the Brontë museum and then became a biographer. So far she has written seven books (at least) including 'The Brontës' which was a New York Times Notable book and also a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year.

Juliet's talk was highly entertaining - covering anecdotes about the business of writing biographies and the effect it has on her family (they become slightly unwilling experts on the subject in hand) to some of the possible pitfalls. For instance she prefers to write about people long dead because there is little risk of relatives being hurt when scandal is uncovered.

It was from Juliet that I heard about the mill employing 1500 people (which to me seemed an incredible number in so small a village), and how this was beneficial to the Brontës because it meant that with the industrialisation there came amenities such as adult learning.

I bought a book for my mother about the letters of the Brontës. The family tended to write about everything, and were careful to always add the date, and Juliet was able to uncover many discrepancies in the Elizabeth Gaskell*'s account of their lives. It sounds very interesting, and I intend to take a look before passing it on to my mother.

Another interesting point Juliet made was on the longevity of the Brontës. Although each of his children died before the age of 40, Patrick Brontë lived to his eighties - as did all of his many siblings (except for one). She thought that they inherited their weakness from their mother. It is a tragic tale. After the mother and then two eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died aged 10 and 11, Branwell was the next to go at 31 from alcoholism, then Emily and Anne from TB and Charlotte from some form of sickness, either typhoid or maybe severe morning sickess.

It is the life of Branwell who strikes me as the greatest tragedy, however. As a child he was regarded as the most talented of the family, and yet he destroyed himself before he was able to produce very much. Charlotte, the eldest of his sisters was devastated, and Juliet said there was a word she stabbed out in a letter which indicated her distress: 'obscure'. Branwell was meant to be as successful as the rest of them, but whereas Charlotte left the world Jane Eyre, Emily left Wuthering Heights and Anne The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (generally underestimated, and well worth reading, according to Juliet) Branwell left behind a series of unexceptional paintings. It is a tale often repeated in families, I think - the tragedy of a life wasted by drink and there is little anyone can do to prevent it.

At the end of the talk Juliet sold her books in aid of a charity Caring For Life which supplies accommodation and support for the homeless and vulnerable; looking after some of the Branwells of today perhaps.

Then, after the talk, it was time to go - back onto the trains again. It was a treat of a day - much enjoyed by everyone, I thought. Thank you very much to Anna Ganley for organising it.

*Thanks to Sue Wilkes for pointing out my spelling error here (see comments).