Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Salon: Rainbows in my Eyes by J.K. Rowbory

I encountered Jenny Rowbory on twitter. She'd organised a quirky little game to guess the colour of Jeremy Paxman's tie on University Challenge. I don't think anyone ever got it right. Shortly afterwards she tweeted about her poetry book, Rainbows in my Eyes, being launched, and after discovering her story, bought a copy.

The first thing I encounter on opening the book is Jenny. She is lying in bed, her face tipped upwards to the the camera, her hand reaching downwards to stroke a golden-haired dog. Her face is framed in dark curls and she has a bright smile. Underneath I read that she was born in 1986 and is therefore only 23 or 24, and since starting university in 2004 has been so ill that she is now bed-bound. This intelligent young woman is suffering from severe Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME).

Her poetry evokes her world. It is, necessarily, a restricted one. For instance, in 'A fleeting visit' she describes the 'fixed portion of the world', her 'rectangular allocation of life' that is her window. All she can see are the tops of trees and so when birds visit it is a welcome and significant change of scenery. In 'Sleep Pod' she appreciates the other essential element of this world - her bed - because it allows her to escape into sleep; while 'Dayspring describes the 'stunning shock of truth' on waking. In 'Blur' she evokes simply and effectively how it is to spend your life waiting - waiting that is for something to change.

Mostly though she seems to retreat to some place inside. In 'My Day' she describes how she 'breaststrokes through the air' and there are two wonderfully surreal poems: 'Quest for the Holy Grail', which is a metaphorical piece about someone who has captured 'Health' and is holding it captive in a chair; and 'The Rainbow Bird' which is about a beautiful bird that is plucked of all her feathers. The denuded bird goes through years of suffering alone, until a butterfly notices rainbows in her eyes and wonders how they can still be there. She explains that her light comes from within and if the creatures of the world take time to know her they will have her light too.
'Will you tell them for me butterfly?
Tell them my story,

that the rainbows

and light

that that were so hungry

to see and follow before,
they can have for themselves.
I think any reader finishing the book is left with a sense of hope and resilience because despite everything Jenny Rowbory has a deep faith in God. Although she sometimes flails out at Him ('Can't you be a Magician, Lord'), and sometimes questions her relationship with Him ('Let Me In'), she has faith that God is always there for everyone ('Honoured'):
'Only God notices the deedless form upon the bed
(who no one will see, hear or read about)
and bends close and strokes their brow.'

And now, thanks to Jenny Rowbory's talent and persistence (and twitter, blogger and Longman's Pearson Project who published the book) we hear and read about them too.

Money from the sale of this anthology will go towards Jenny Rowbory's medical costs. You can buy a copy here (includes a link through to Amazon as well as direct).


Jenny Rowbory was born in 1986 in Ashford, Middlesex, and currently lives in Suffolk. After attending ten different schools she went to university, however, during her first year in 2004, she became ill with a virus that caused severe M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis: inflammation of the brain and spinal cord). M.E. affects all bodily systems, causing Jenny to be bed-bound and unable to sit up because of strain on her cardiovascular system.

Jenny Rowbory's website has more information about Jenny, her book and her illness

Interview (dictated by Jenny through email)

CD: When did you start writing poetry?

JKR: I started writing poems when I started 6th form. I hadn't chosen English as an A-level subject (I chose Ancient Greek, French, Chemistry and Biology) and was frustrated without a creative outlet. One time I found myself typing a poem on the computer in the middle of a piece of chemistry homework (which I had to delete before handing in to the teacher of course)! Writing poems just seemed natural to me, like they needed to be written. It still feels that way now. When I have a poem knocking on the doors of my mind, it gets louder and louder until I open the door and release the words onto paper. I actually wrote a poem about this in my book 'Rainbows in my eyes', called 'Lost in translation'. Sometimes whole poems just pop into my mind fully formed, other times I start with an idea and then develop it. Now I'm ill, thinking is just about all I am able to do, so I still write about what I have been mulling over.

CD: When do you write it now?
JKR: Most of the poems in 'Rainbows in my eyes' were written a few years ago - I was severely ill, but not as bad as I am now. So at the moment I rarely write poems as my heart begins to fail at any slight movement.

CD: What effect does it have on you?
JKR: I don't think it has any particular effect on me. As I mentioned earlier, it feels like I've released a poem from inside me that needed to be written. I enjoy words and have an extremely vivid imagination, so it needs some sort of an outlet.

CD: How do you write your poetry? Do you dictate it or are you sometimes able to write yourself?
JKR: The poems in 'Rainbows in my eyes' were handwritten by me over the last four years, which my Mum kindly typed up onto a computer for me. Now I have something called a Space Pen which is able to write whilst tilting upwards (unlike normal pens which just stop working), so I can write whilst lying flat (I'm unable to sit up), but I am rarely even able to use the Space Pen now.

CD: I think my favourite poems are where you express the limitations of your world. I particularly like the beautiful simplicity of the lines in 'Blur' and the way it expresses the idea that time is something that can change. When do you find time moves most quickly?
JKR: When you are ill and unable to move, time does seem to move very slowly. For most people, time moves fastest whilst they are enjoying themselves, but there's no enjoyment in being this ill! So I guess for me time moves most quickly either when I go into my imagination and make up stories or when I am well enough to watch a TV programme/film that I enjoy.

CD: I was also much impressed by the surreal qualities of 'Quest for the Holy Grail'. In it the idea of 'Health' has become a something bound up in a chair even though its captor denies that anything is there at all. You wake to find an NHS doctor. What has been the response of the NHS to your condition?
JKR: I'll try to be diplomatic here! As far as I understand, NICE's (National Institute of Clinical Excellence) guidelines prevent doctors on the NHS from treating M.E. patients in a biomedical manner, despite evidence of abnormal test results. Professor Anthony Komaroff (of Harvard Medical School) confirms “There are over 4,000 papers on the biomedical nature of ME/CFS…spanning over 60 years.” So it beggars belief that some doctors still believe that this is a psychological disorder. But it is not surprising since the psychiatrists who have the government's ear have vested interests in the health insurance industry. The Countess of Mar has slated this corruption recently in The House of Lords:

The UK and NICE are on record as not acknowledging the World Health Organisation's classification of M.E. as a neurological disease (disease of the brain, spinal cord and nerves).
Unfortunately this all means that the NHS's treatment approach is based on the should-be-void psychosomatic model of M.E./CFS. As far as I'm aware, the NHS only offers two “treatments” for M.E.: CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and GET (Graded Exercise Therapy). There is real concern that not only is CBT ineffective, but that GET is potentially harmful to patients with ME/CFS. It is known that GET may leave up to 82% of ME/CFS patients who have undertaken it irreversibly house or bed-bound. If sufferers want any biomedical treatment, we have to go to a private doctor, which most patients can't afford.

Many of my NHS doctors have just said that there's nothing that they can do for me and left me to suffer. I have had experience of many GP surgeries coming on home visits to see me, as we live in rented accommodation and so move house quite a lot (and therefore have changed surgeries a fair few times). All the doctors have the same response.

CD: Another favourite is the longest poem in the book 'The Rainbow Bird'. It contains some beautiful lines and I can see exactly why you decided to call your collection 'Rainbows in my Eyes'. What do you hope readers will gain from reading your poetry?
JKR: The meaning behind a poem that I might have intended does not matter. Whatever meaning the reader takes from a poem is the important thing. Their response and reaction to a poem is just as valid as whatever I might have intended. They might find it interesting to discover what I actually meant, but that does not invalidate their interpretation. I often write my poems in the first person, even if I don't mean to speak about myself or my situation. This is because I want the readers to put themselves into the poem, so that they apply the poem to themselves and to whatever is going on in their own lives. Even when I write about my own suffering, I intend the reader to identify with it and apply it to any suffering or troubles in their lives - we all suffer in some way.

General Questions
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
JKR: Not really. Only that when I was young and picked snails up, I really wanted the snails to poke their head out of their shells so that I could see them, but they rarely ever did! One of my best friend's worst sounds is that of a snail's shell being crushed (for her, it's like fingernails being scraped down a blackboard).

CD: What is your proudest moment?
JKR: It's funny how I can never think of a specific moment when asked. I guess it was when I received the best A-level results in my school and got a letter from the examining board saying that I had achieved 100% in one of them, coming joint highest in the country.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
JKR: My most life-changing event is not a good one. Having been a member of netball, hockey, football, swimming and athletics teams, I arrived at university in September 2004 to study Medicine, a healthy individual. All that changed when I suddenly became ill with a virus in my first term there and then BAM:

This has been my life 24/7 for the last 5 years: Bed-bound and unable to sit up because every slight movement, even talking, causes me to go into heart failure; chest pain and pain in the left arm; heart straining to pump; severe headaches that mean even a tiny movement of my head causes agony to shoot through it; dizziness so great that it causes the room to swim; muscle pain and debilitating exhaustion especially in the arms and legs, making it so difficult to move them; insomnia - 2 hours broken sleep per night is about the norm; chronic constipation; painful and swollen glands and lymph nodes; a constant low grade fever; poor digestion and absorption; agonising stomach pain; spine pain; muscle twitching…This is severe Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.), which means inflammation of the brain and spinal cord [absurdly M.E. is also called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)].

My life involves just about managing to prop myself up enough to eat, getting to the mini portaloo in my room (a remnant from our camping days), shuffling to the bathroom a couple of times a week to wash lying in the bath under the shower. All these “activities” cause my symptoms to get even more severe and I have to lie still in between them in order to be able to do them. My treats involve watching a bit of television from my bed and going on Twitter on my iPod whilst lying flat.

CD: What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?
JKR: There are so many people suffering in the world; I don't think I could single out any one thing/person in particular. There are so many stories I've heard of injustice and corruption and suffering.

CD: If there was one thing you'd change about yourself what would it be?
JKR: To think of others before I think of myself. I'm working on it!

CD: What is happiness?
JKR: Happiness is to be with the people whom you love and who love you (i.e. to love and be loved).

CD: What do you do first thing in the morning?
JKR: I open my eyes (hehe).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What I'm Doing 29:

What I'm listening to:

'Funeral' by Band of Horses. I can't remember where I first heard this - but it led me to buy their album 'Everything All the Time' and I like every track. It's the sort of plaintive, miserable music that is very suitable accompaniment to the average British winter (and summer).

What I watched last:

Running on Empty. I expect everyone else in the world saw this in the 1980s, but I somehow missed out. It stars River Phoenix who who I'd heard a lot about, but this film makes it plain what a talented person he was. As well as being a suitable vehicle for his musicianship I thought his acting in this film was quite stunning too. It's an unusual theme - about prodigal relationships and the pain of separation - and the acting from the rest of the cast was excellent too.

What I'm reading:

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Zhisui Li. Zhisui Li spent more time with the Chinese leader than anyone else, which gives him an authority as biographer. When I read about China I am conscious that there might be bias - so I think the best thing I can try to do is read from as many different sources as possible. This way I shall see the story from all directions which I hope will be bring me as close to what really happened as possible. This book is a new acquisition - my interest piqued by my reading of Wild Swans by Jung Chang.

Wild Swans also led me to buy The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China by Lu Xun because I wanted a example of modern Chinese literature, and although this is not too modern (Lu Xun was writing at the start of the twentieth century), he is considered to be one of the leading Chinese writers of the era.

What I'm doing:
My talk for my Patagonian book. I'm going through all the books I read in my research looking for quotes and pictures to compile a powerpoint presentation. This will take some time...

Incredibly, it's been eight months since I did 'What I'm doing 28', so high time I did another.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Snail Tea Time

Look what I've got!

The essential snail-writing companions. They are going in writing shed so I can see them all the time because I think they are splendid.

Thank you Ali!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Helping Haiti and the International Medical Corps

Last night I watched again a video of the earth shaking buildings down in Haiti. It seemed willful, as if behind it all were a deliberate hand: fall, fall, fall.

Then, this morning, I saw footage of a Haitian mother in labour - too weak to push her baby out into this unwelcoming world.

And today, at lunch-time, news of a powerful aftershock, and thought how much it must have shook again and terrified.

I suppose like everyone else I have watched wishing I could do something to help.

And now, an email from Ellie Brown from the International Medical Corps. This is a 'global, humanitarian, nonprofit organization, founded by volunteer doctors and nurses'. Their team is treating crush injuries, trauma, substantial wound care, shock and other critical cases with the few available supplies.'There are still thousands of patients seeking treatment of which approximately 80% are in need of surgery and are running out of time...
'Haiti still needs help,' she says, and she wants to know if I can publicise what they do.

'There are still thousands of patients seeking treatment of which approximately 80% are in need of surgery and are running out of time...

...donating $10 to help the people of Haiti is as simple as sending a text message of the word "haiti" to 85944'"


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Preparing to Speak.

Today I am about to embark on my preparation for 'The Talk'.

I shall need the books I used

the notes I made

and the photographs I took

to construct an illustrated talk about the research I did for my Patagonian novel.

There is so much here that it is difficult to know where to start. I look at a photo or start reading my notes, and immediately I am away, far from my desk, back in that cold desert with the guanaco munching on some frazzled weed and a flock of rhea skittering madly away across the pampas.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Unravelling the Silkworm's Genetic Fibre.

In 2004 a draft genome sequence for the silkworm was published; this makes the silkworm the member of a privileged club. Very few complicated creatures have had their complete genome sequence outlined - until recently it was a time-consuming business and only the most scientifically important animals were selected. The silkworm is a useful animal because it makes a good (large) model for other insects. It is also easy to breed and rear, is clean, quiet and sociable, and not inclined to cannibalism like, say, the spider. In other words it is the perfect house-guest and I am rather fond of them.

Since 2004 (in Chongqing Institute of Sericulture and elsewhere) this rough outline of a genome has been gradually (metaphorically) 'coloured in' to give a more accurate gene model. This is useful for many reasons. One is that the genes of an animal give a clue about its evolutionary ancestry.

For instance when the genomes of various sorts of domestic silkworms are compared with that of wild silkworms it is clear that they are genetically different. Furthermore, an analysis of the the genes shows that there was probably 'one unique event' that caused domestication, and this event happened very quickly. Just as all the races of man outside Africa come from a single mother, so all the domestic silkworms have the same wild ancestor mother. 'Just one event' - I keep thinking about this. Maybe this means that a single animal had a favourable mutation, and this has given rise to all the many millions of domestic silkworms in the world.

Before this domestication event occurred the Japanese and Chinese wild silkworm had already diverged - the genomes have revealed this too. They also reveal that these Japanese strains have subsequently been 'invaded' by the domesticated silkworm strains - that is, somewhere along the track some domesticated silkworms mated with some wild Japanese silkworms and their genes were incorporated.

The genome has also solved the puzzle of the specific diet of the silkworm which has intrigued me ever since I'd heard about it. I've already described, months ago, how Japanese scientists determined what causes the silkworm to be so fussy and only eat mulberry. (To recap the silk worm is attracted by the smell of the mulberry through antennae on the top of its head, but needs different smells from the mulberry, detected by feelers next to its mouth, before it will start chewing and swallowing. The Japanese scientists discovered this by slicing off various silkworm parts. They were elegant experiments but cruel ones).

But why should the silkworm be so fussy? The answer probably lies in the fact that to most animals the mulberry is poisonous, and so any animal that can get around this will have its own unique food source that is shirked by all others. Gradually the silkworm must have evolved alongside the mulberry and adapted to the mulberry's poison. Analysis of the genes has revealed exactly how this adaptation happened. The poison is an alkaloid, which requires a special enzyme to digest it. Until silkworms came on the scene only bacteria and some plants had this special enzyme - but now silkworms have incorporated some of the bacteria's genes into its own genome so it can make the enzyme too. I imagine some proto-silkworm might have been infected by the bacteria, and somehow, maybe by means of a virus which is good at mixing DNA (though this is just my guess-work) the genes of the cells of this proto-silkworm changed.

Apart from the genes to produce the mulberry-alkaloid-busting-enzyme the silkworm genome also contains genes that produce silk. Locating these is interesting because it enables scientists to rearrange them and maybe make them produce a more valuable protein. This has been done too. Silkworms have produced pharmaceutically-useful proteins in their silk, as well as silks of different colours, and strengths.

Apart from this, according to the abstract kindly given to me by Dr. Guoqing Pan in Chongqing, scientists have investigated the genes involved in making the pigmentation in newly hatched silkworms, how insulin is regulated, how a mutation that gives rise to yellow silkworms also causes these silkworms to die - long before they reach the pupa stage, altered the genes of silkworms so that one strain conveniently dies before it hatches out of its cocoon, and another strain that not only dies but also does not decay.

The silkworm's immune system - its genetic origins and the way it acts - were also examined. The silkworm is a useful model for other insects in particular the Lepidoptera (because it is so large and so easily examined) as well as elements of our own immune system - the innate part that has proved itself so valuable similar systems occur unaltered in all animals, even ourselves.

There were also many studies on Microspordia. Until I read these abstracts I'd never heard of Microsporidia but apparently Pebrine, the scourge of the silkworm (and discovered by Louis Pasteur), is one of them. Microsporidia are related to fungi and are the cause of some parasitic infections in children in the tropics.

Microsporidia are interesting because they have evolved from mitochondria by eliminating some of their genetic material and becoming less complicated. They have lost so many genes that they can no longer make the metabolites necessary to live - so, like viruses, they have depend on hosts for their survival. However, whereas viruses hijack the replication mechanism of the cell, the microsporidia extract nutrients. Once a spore comes into contact with a host, it is activated and a tube which has been coiled up inside the spore, is ejected with such force that it breaks through both the spore wall and the plasma membrane of the host.

Microsporidia can infect all animal groups and is an emerging human pathogen. Since it is a tropical disease, outbreaks of microsporidia infection are likely to become more frequent and widespread as the earth warms. So understanding the microsporidia genome and what the disease needs to survive and thrive is important - and once again the silkworm, or rather its disease, Pebrine, is a useful model.

Pebrine microspores, however, are slightly different from other microsporidea and have a different evolutionary history. They have bucked the genetic trend and instead of decreasing the number of their genes they have duplicated them. This has given them some adaptability and enabled them to infect a wider range of hosts. Just as the proto-silkworms incorporated some bacterial genes into its genome, so the Pebrine microspore has actually incorporated some of the genetic material of the silkworm into its genome. It is an interesting to think that such different living things combine and merge.

So this collection of abstracts describes a diverse range of discoveries, with some important implications, all generated from, or related to, a project to investigate the genome of the silkworm. No doubt the project was started for economic reasons - improving silk productivity and quality - but has subsequently broadened into unsuspected areas. That is the beauty of scientific research, and also why it is so infuriating. It takes unexpected turns, and can occasionally turn out to be more valuable than anyone could have imagined.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday Salon: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

There was a time, about fifteen years ago, when everyone seemed to be reading this book. I didn't - just because it was so popular. Usually, when I read best sellers I am disappointed. Now I just wish I'd read it then, and also think that it's an important book that deserves as wide an audience as possible. It's an excellent way of learning about recent Chinese history - at least from the viewpoint of one family.

Jung Chang's grandmother was the daughter of a war lord and his concubine. This concubine, Jung Chang's great grandmother, was regarded as one of her father's greatest assets. She was beautiful with a slender frame and delicate features, and she also had 'lotus feet' achieved by binding and breaking bones when she was a toddler - an operation carried out by her mother. As I have mentioned before bound feet were supposed to be erotic and Jung Chang explains why. Men were supposed to find the helpless way of walking, and the woman's child-like dependency arousing some kind of protective feeling in the man. Youthful features are generally thought to be sexually attractive - it is thought to be one reason why blondes have more fun, and women constantly strive to look slim. All these features mimic the young of our species - and maybe the attraction of the new and unsullied. Maybe, in some way, the bound feet were associated with virginity.

The concubine rarely saw her lover, but on the second occasion that she did she became pregnant. The daughter, Jung Chang's mother, was given a name (in earlier generations some daughters had just been allotted numbers ('number three daughter') meaning Wild Swan. It was a strange life of isolation and comfort. She was constantly on tenterhooks because servants were spies, quite happy to report transgressions to the warlord master in order to ingratiate themselves. Since these might be invented and the punishment for even some trivial-sounding crimes was death.

Eventually the warlord becomes politically and physically weaker, and Jung Chang's great grandmother has to yield to his request to come and live with his wives and other concubines. Life there is predictably unpleasant with much bullying, and the prospect of being sold into slavery or prostitution when the old warlord dies. Jung's grandmother and mother escape, and the warlord's last act is to grant them their freedom.

Eventually she marries the mysterious and very attractive figure of Dr Xia. He is already fairly elderly when they marry and there is much opposition from his children (who are already parents and grandparents in their own right). In fact there is so much opposition that Dr Xia has a show-down with his eldest son which causes the son to have so much loss of face that he accidentally kills himself. Despite this Dr Xia marries, and although very wealthy makes the noble decision to leave his wealth to his children and take ex-concubine and her daughter to live elsewhere in a shack.

The mother grows up defiant and unafraid. She lives through the turbulent periods following the second world war and eventually becomes an ardent communist. She meets her husband, Jung Chang's father who has already shown his mettle as a Communist terrorist. Jung Chang's father is dedicated to communism. He refuses to make allowances for his wife, and when they have to march long distances is unsympathetic to her exhaustion, and even when this is shown to be due to pregnancy (after a miscarriage) he is little warmer. He seems cold, disciplined and above all highly principled.

Jung Chang's father in 1966 before the Cultural Revolution, and in the camp just over 5 years later.

When the Communists are eventually fully in charge the life of Jung Chang's parents, siblings and Jung Chang herself is one of relative luxury. At first the husband and wife are only allowed to spend the night together once a week, but eventually they have superior accommodation in Yibin together. They have a wet nurse, a maid and various other trappings. Things take a bit of a downturn when a powerful woman called Mrs Ting tries to seduce the father but they move to Chengdu be out of her influence.

Mrs Ting turns out to be the families constant adversary. She has many enemies and is endlessly vindictive. I think most people have their Mrs Ting but in Communist China this Mrs Ting was powerful. As Mao and Mrs Mao plotted and twisted in Beijing, turning against former allies and plotting anarchy as a way to divide and weaken enemies, so Mrs Ting and her husband plotted and conspired too. The advent of the Red Guards (of which Jung Chang was one), which victimised isolated people like teachers and artists, was the start of the Cultural Revolution. Then came the Rebels who were encouraged to attack the officials of the party, and then these rebels became factions fighting each other. Everyone had a side, and everyone could be attacked. There were new political campaigns and Jung Chang's parents had to endure months of meetings in which they would be verbally and physically attacked, eventually being detained and then sent to the countryside in conditions close to a gulag. Somewhere along the way the father has to burn his precious books, and this scene, and a scene where he eventually glimpses the mother after two years are the most touching in the book.

The schools by this time (end of 1960s) are closed. Jung Chang, together with her sister and friends are sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants. They live in a mud hut and work in the fields. It is back-breaking work. Getting back to have town citizenship and the all-important food ration is difficult and involves an arduous trip to get pieces of paper sealed, but eventually Jung Chang's family is reunited when the Tings are removed from power and her mother and then her father have been rehabilitated. By this time it is too late. Jung Chang's father is a broken man. Earlier he had been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and now he lives on tranquilisers. In the labour camp he had time to reflect. When news had come that his wife was seriously ill he had asked her to 'accept my apologies that come a life-time too late.'

The mother returns to work and makes the essential back door negotiations for Jung Chang to go to university, but her father refuses. It is only after being pressurised that he gives in and lends his influence. It is Jung Chang's father that I shall remember mostly from this book. He was a graceful, learned man who loved literature. He was harshly correct and disciplined and yet photographs show him to be a man with a sensitive tormented face. He is strong willed and confident in his beliefs which makes his breakdown all the more dramatically tragic. When he died Jung Chang's mother had to work hard to make sure he had the correct eulogy, but she succeeded. It meant that his children would no longer carry the stigma he had accumulated at the end of his life. As with all such eulogies it seems a pity he didn't hear it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Free Speech Is Not For Sale - a publication from English Pen

This morning I received this publication from English PEN: FREE SPEECH IS NOT FOR SALE - The Impact of English Libel Law on Freedom of Expression. It's clearly written and very interesting. I also think it is rather important and so thought I'd write a summary on this blog.

It is a report jointly written by members of English Pen and the Index on censorship and is the result of an enquiry which included round table meetings with lawyers, editors, publishers and bloggers.

After an executive summary which concludes that 'Ultimately we believe that legislation will be required to set an appropriate balance in law between the protection of reputation and the fundamental importance of free expression' it then goes on to list ten primary failings of the current system and offer solutions. These are described in full and then summarised.

They include
putting the onus on the claimant (who is often rich) to demonstrate damage;

capping the damages that can be claimed to £10 000 (these days it is often used a method of accruing wealth);

introducing a single publication rule (at the moment the claimant can sue for every copy - this is called the Brunswick rule because in 1849 the Duke of Brunswick successfully sued for libel after his manservant found a 17 year old journal in which the Duke found himself defamed);

only allowing cases where at least ten per cent of copies of the publication have been circulated in England and Wales (this prevents libel tourism - where the claimant and the publication is little known in England and Wales but the case is brought here because of the potential rich pickings and general reputation of the system);

the establishment of a low cost forum for trials (the usual setting for a libel case is a full trial which is expensive);

strengthening the 'information in public interest' defence;

expanding the definition of 'fair comment' (this was important in the Simon Singh case - still pending. If something is judged to be said as 'comment' rather than 'fact' then this is deemed to be merely the opinion of the respondent and therefore not necessarily libelous);

ensuring the costs for the respondent are capped (at the moment many people cannot afford to defend themselves because of the prospect of having to pay the fees of lawyers both defending them and prosecuting them);

making interactive online services and chat exempt from liability (at present a site-owner is liable for any libelous comment);

and also making large firms exempt from libel law unless they can prove malicious falsehood (this is because not everything is deserving of a reputation, and allowing large firms to sue has a 'damaging impact').

Case Studies.
There follows some interesting examples of where the English libel law has been used to stifle free speech, most of it within the last ten years.

The first started in 1984 over letters by a couple of Russian journalists in the Daily Telegraph. The English courts eventually decided in favour of the claimant (Vladimir Matusevitch) and ordered the respondent (Vladimir Telnikoff) to pay £240 000 damages. However Telnikoff then moved to Maryland in the USA, and the Maryland courts found they could not enforce the English libel judgment.

A case in 2003 was between another couple of Russians, this time both claimants against a magazine published in the USA. Even though only 6000 copies were accessed in print or on-line in this country the case was brought here because one of the claimants made frequent business trips to the UK and had a daughter at Cambridge.

The next case seems to me to be a land-mark case. It rumbled on between 2004 until 2008 and resulted in the Free Speech Protection Act 2009 which is pending before the US congress. This would provide protection from libel tourism throughout the USA and is the result of a case brought against a journalist Rachel Ehrenfeld who argued in her book 'Funding Exit - How Terrorism is Financed' that a wealthy Arab businessman was funding terrorism with a drug trafficking business. The book was not on sale in the UK but 23 copies were bought via the internet and the first chapter was available online.

Ehrenfeld refused to acknowledge the case, but Justice Eady ruled that Ehrenfeld's allegations were unsubstantiated, and the Arab businessman and his two sons awarded £10 000 damages each. Ehrenfeld, worried about the defamation ruling hanging over her sought a declaration that 'to enforce the UK judgment would be 'repugnant' to her First Amendment rights'. In February 2008 New York State Assembly passed the Libel Terrorism Protection Act (Rachel's Law) which makes foreign libel law was unenforceable unless the foreign law grants the defendant the same First Amendment protection as available in New York State.

In 2007 similar accusations were made against the same businessman by authors in a book published by Cambridge University Press. However in this case the publisher's Intellectual Property Director decided that 'it would not be a responsible use of our resources, nor in the interests of any of our scholarly authors, to attempt to defend a legal action (in this case)'. Neither author agreed to sign the publisher's apology posted on its website. The books were pulped and damages paid.

The owner of a website which allowed comments from readers that a football club decided were 'false and seriously defamatory' was forced to reveal the identity of the readers (who had commented under a pseudonym). The case was eventually not brought to court. However the football club did pursue another commenter for damages until eventually backing down and paying legal costs when the commenter secured the services of a lawyer.

Transmission of a programme by satellite also expose reporters to the English libel law, as Al Arabiya, a satellite television network based in Dubai, found in 2007. They were successfully sued by a Tunisian Sheikh. Although the report was in Arabic it was available to receivers in the English jurisdiction.

In 2006 there was a case of interest to novelists and concerned a character invented by Jake Arnott (who I interviewed here). He'd inadvertently chosen the same name for his character ( a musician) as a real-life musician. The case was settled out of court with apologies and 'significant damages and costs'. It makes me glad that I've always written about historical characters who died long ago.

The case studies finish with two scientific examples, both published in the Guardian. When Ben Goldacre wrote about his concerns about an advertisement by a vitamin pill manufacturer in South Africa denouncing AIDS drugs as ineffective, the manufacturer, Rath, sued for libel. Even though the case was dropped the Guardian still had to pay costs of £500 000. The other case concerns the suing of Simon Singh by the chiropractors. This case is still pending (and explained much better than I can on Jack of Kent's blog) but already has led to some potential good: the petition for libel reform and, presumably, this report. There have already been many reports in the newspapers and there are signs that the government is thinking of taking action.

Friday, January 15, 2010

An interview with Dr. Guoqing Pan - Associate Professor at Southwest University, Chongqing.

It was raining. Around us were hundreds of students, each one with an umbrella. Joanne stopped one after another asking for directions, and they smiled and shrugged, or smiled and pointed, and slowly we homed in to the the Institute of Sericulture and Systems Biology, Southwest University, Chongqing. It is a large building, looking much like any typical modern university department in the UK, but this one tucked in among high sub-tropical trees and sweeping driveways.

I'd come to see Dr Guoqing Pan. During my planning of this trip I had been monitoring the papers on sericulture coming from China in an effort to find the best place to go. I'd noticed there were several papers coming from Chongqing, and so I'd emailed a professor there, and eventually received a reply from one of his colleagues.

Dr. Guoqing had a dreadful cold. The reason he had a dreadful cold I suspect, and the thought of this frustrates me even now, was that the previous week there had been an international Symposium on the silkworm (Bombyx mori) and he'd probably picked up his cold from the other delegates. I could have easily gone. If I'd flown straight to Chongqing from Hanzhou I could have flow from conference to conference, but as it was Dr. Guoqing gave me the abstracts of the papers and I have had to content myself with looking through those, and he was kind enough to grant me an interview.

Dr. Guoqing does research on Pebrine, the disease that Louis Pasteur first isolated in the mid-nineteenth century. It afflicted French silkworm farms, frequently wiping out entire 'crops' of silkworms, and it still the scourge of silkworm farms today. The pathogen is difficult to identify and farmers need to be constantly vigilant. The usual method of identification is in the moth - and after she has laid her eggs her corpse must be examined for pebrine spores because the disease travels vertically from moth to egg. If the Pebrine spore is present all the eggs mut be destroyed. This method of inspection is laborious and difficult, so Dr. Guoqing is trying to develop an alternative method. One possibility may be through using antibodies.

Pebrine research is just part of the work of the Institute of Sericulture at Southwest University. Other interests are the general genetics of the silkworm, transgenetics and also research work on the silkworm's only food: the mulberry. It is a big department with about one hundred post-graduates. They collaborate internationally on projects - notably with Japan, the US and Australia - but one of their biggest projects is a national one called 'Project 973'. This involves eight to ten different institutes over the whole of China and the secretary of the project is based in Chongqing.

The aims of Project 973 are to find the genes involved in the production of silk in the silkworm; modify them to increase the quality and quantity of silk production and also produce coloured silk by modifying the proteins and imitating naturally coloured silks.

Dr. Guoqing was born in 1973 near to Beijing and went to university in Chongqing in 1991. In China a student applies to do a range of subjects - Dr Guoqing applied to do Economics or Food Science - but was selected to do Veterinary Science. The location is also dictated by examination results.

"But it's really hard to get into Veterinary Science," I told him, and Dr. Guoqing smiled and said he knew. "It's not the case in China," he said, "a neighbour told me that I'd never find a wife if I did veterinary science, and so I didn't want to do it."

He's happy now, though. He graduated in 1995 and then went on to study viruses in chickens at an agricultural college. He then returned in 1998, and began his work on the genomes of Pebrine in 2003 which he really enjoys and is determined to be a good teacher.

After donning plastic shoe covers to keep things clean, he showed me around his department and introduced me to a few students. It was all very similar to the laboratories I used to know in the UK - white walls, small rooms full of centrifuges, microscopes, ovens, refrigerated rooms and big white boxes housing robotic sampling systems. It was strange to suddenly find myself surrounded by such familiar things. Twenty-first century science, it seems, is much the same everywhere.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chongqing - city of fog

Whenever I go on one of my research expeditions I take notes. Whenever I can - sitting in a car, at an airport, on a plane, even sitting at a restaurant, the moleskine comes out and I fill page after page. Afterwards the words take me back. It is as though the world I was in builds from the short sentence.

Lunch-time. I'm alone at a table in a restaurant. A television, set on the wall, blares out some day-time television which seems just as mindless as its British equivalent. Around me is the debris from last night's wedding: an arch adorned with artificial pink flowers, placards and photos greeting the bride and groom. I've witnessed many of these now. Sometimes there is not just one, but two weddings, sometimes simultaneously, the photographers from either party competing for shots; or sometimes one wedding after the other, the trappings of one ingloriously cleared away to make room for the next. They are raucous because to the Chinese noise signifies luck and life. Quiet is reserved for the white grief of death.

As usual I am presented with a series of bowls and plates: an interesting soup with mutton bones and pumpkin floating around at the top and cereal and small beans at the bottom; a main dish of hot spicy chicken and peanut (Chongqing is famous for its hot food, but I have not encountered anything yet I couldn't eat); some dark green leaf vegetable the colour and texture of seaweed and some white, possibly pickled cabbage which I warily take a mouthful then leave, deciding it is possibly uncooked. The drink is flat and doesn't taste of anything I recognise although it is allegedly 'Sprite'. I ask for a can which causes a small commotion - and I have long finished my meal by the time it arrives. I have to pay for it separately.

The only other occupants of the restaurant are my driver and guide - both of them pleasant, although the driver drives too fast and we had to come to a hiccuping stop on the highway as the car in front suddenly broke down. We swerved and lurched forward several times before finally coming to a stop and I was glad of my seat belt - the only person wearing one. The car in front had had to stop because the catch of the lid of his bonnet had suddenly broken free, leaping up in front of him.
'They drive too fast,' said my guide, Joanne.
We passed several in the same predicament, some of them driving on anyway. It was a relief to hit the city traffic. Although it is noisier - drivers hoot with impatience, anger and as a warning they are about to overtake - at least any collisions are likely to be minor because there is little room to move.

I never notice the driver coming into the restaurant, but each time he comes in behind us. At the moment both he and the guide are sitting at the other end of the restaurant hidden by the bench-like back of the seat. I know they're there because from above the top of the driver's head comes a thin plume of smoke.

The Chinese restaurants have a characteristic faux splendour. The windows are shuttered so I lose track of time; the floor is sumptuously carpeted and the tables are covered in cloths and mats - but dirty from the meals before. The colour scheme is an unusual lime green and white - not the usual pink and red. Apart from distant sound of the TV on the wall there is traditional music - Chinese cadences and intervals softly singing from speakers - a lyre, perhaps.

We step out into fog. It is only 2.30pm but it feels like evening. It has a yellowish tinge and Joanne tells me that Chongqing is famous for its heavy industry and its coal mining which is dangerous and there are often accidents. The industries are being built outside the city now, she says, to avoid pollution, and since 1985 coal has been banned for domestic heating. There are no coal-powered poser stations in the city. At the moment Chongqing buys its electricity from another province, and uses hydroelectric power from small dam on the Yangtze; but soon power from the Three Gorges Dam will be available, and Chongqing will benefit once more from its position at the confluence of the two rivers - the Yangtze and the Jialing.

But at the moment I can see no river. All I can see is the fog swirling around in a large space. But the river is there below the fog, Joanne assures me. It is the Jialing, and the buildings to the side of us have a prime and splendid view once the fog clears. They are being built on land acquired by a Hong Kong businessman (in an enterprise scheme with the local government) and are very expensive. Chongqing, apparently, is becoming a sought after place. The Three Gorges Dam project will not only supply lots of clean energy but has ensured that ocean-going ships will be able to reach the port. Considering Chongqing is in the middle of the huge land mass of China this is quite astonishing (although it takes 8-11 days from Shanghai). However, the Three Gorges Dam project has disadvantages too, and later I was to find out a little about the enormous strategic problems involved in relocating the people of the ancient communities displaced by the rising water.

Apart from the dam the rest of Chongqing's transport infrastructure is being improved too: my guide pointed out the construction of a new subway being built which might (temporarily, I suspect) ease the congestion on the roads. This is part of a hugely ambitious project to build a network of subways connecting with a light railway system I could already see swooping across the city. With over 30 million people the municipal city of Chongqing (really consists of an amalgamation of several cities) is already one of the largest on the planet - and is set to become more populous and affluent yet.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sunday Salon: A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal

Thomas Buergenthal was born in Czechoslovakia shortly before the second world war. He was Jewish, and since his family were unable to escape before the Nazis invaded they were sent to first a ghetto and eventually a concentration camp. By this time the family were separated - the mother sent in one direction and Thomas and his father in another. Eventually father and son too were separated, and the scene where Thomas sees his father for the last time is as sudden as it is sad. It seems that Thomas is about to meet the same fate that has already befallen his peers. But Thomas endured. Very few children survived Auschwitz and Thomas is the youngest.

The Buergenthals survived most of the years of the war by using their intelligence and managing to stay one step ahead of the Nazis who were intent on destroying them. They made themselves useful, and then emphasised that usefulness whenever they were challenged. Other children were rounded up and swiftly exterminated, but Thomas and his father showed that they had skills that were valued: their fluency in languages for instance, and Thomas's father's skills as a manager in charge of a valued workshop. Another factor which was in Thomas's favour was that he was blond and fair-skinned and therefore, oddly, accepted - by the bigoted members of this society - where a darker-complexioned would not have been.

Eventually, at the end of the war, Thomas is rescued and for a short time becomes a mascot of some Polish soldiers before returning home. Even then life is difficult, and it is some time before he is reunited with his mother (even this is a fluke because at the end of the war his mother found herself on the other side of the iron curtain from her son). Thomas is just eleven years old. His father, he learns, is dead.

The memoir does not stop there. Thomas describes the numerous difficulties of living in post-war Europe. Money is short, and then a period of happiness with a new step-father comes to a swift end when he too dies.

There are odd coincidences. It turns out the 'Uncle' Odd Nansen, a Norwegian Thomas meets in an infirmary when in Sachsenhausen, is none other than the son of the famous explorer Fridtjof Nansen (someone I came across in my researches for Wegener's Jigsaw, since he was one of the early explorers of Greenland). Odd Nansen is a writer and has made the young boy he met in Sachsenhausen famous in his memoirs. The two keep a fond correspondence and eventually meet again in Norway where Thomas is enthusiastically welcomed - not only by Nansen's family, but by Nansen's many readers.

Thomas Buergenthal with Odd Nansen after the war.

In 1951 Thomas emigrates alone to America and becomes a successful lawyer specialising in human rights, which, as he points out, have been violated again and again since the holocaust.

When I first read the back of the book (kindly sent to me by the publisher, Profile books) I wondered if there was really any more that could be said about this dreadful period of European history, but A Lucky Child has shown that there is. It is a story about survival. Although almost unbearably sad in parts it is also a story about hope and the strength of the human spirit, and I finished it feeling as though I had somehow imbibed some of Thomas's Buegenthal's optimism. Eventually, despite all odds, he had won through. I highly recommend his book.

Friday, January 08, 2010

A Food Market in China

The market in Chongqing seems to be almost constantly lit by a harsh white light. It is sunk a little into the ground, giving the impression of some vast modern cave and has the ambience of an underground carpark. The stalls are piled high with all shapes of marrows, yams, green vegetables like cabbages and celery and every variety of root. The stall holders are happy for customers to browse, sniff and touch.

I played a game trying to name what I saw: yam with prickles, marrow with spikes, pale root vegetable ending in a spiral, a relative of garlic, something that could be ginger, sheets of a black substance which looked like roof-tiling but could be seaweed.

I was tired. After more than a week in China I felt that I had been staring too long at an over-complicated picture. I was dimly aware of eggs: eggs in boxes, eggs soaking in fluid - shelled and unshelled, small blue eggs and white large ones, eggs I was told were a hundred years old, and those laid yesterday. I moved on to the noodles. The ones I had tasted so far, in the UK, were made from wheat and eggs, but here the noodles were made from other things too: rice, sweet potato...

I tried them in one of my hotels - and they were delicious. These noodles had flavour and their own texture, nothing like the blandness of noodles at home.

China is self-sufficient in most things including food. Even though the population is 1.3 billion it manages to feed them all. The land around Chongqing is fertile and warm and is famous for its productivity, yet, as I said in a previous post, about fifty years ago people were starving. Hong Ying records people digging in the ground for weeds, and using the almost inedible outer leaves for soup. Spices must have been a luxury then

or maybe a necessity to cover up bad flavours and distract from the unpleasantness of eating skin and gristle.

When I was a child, the Chinese were part of the population of the world I was supposed to pray for in Sunday School and school assemblies, and even today the UK still helps China with financial aid. As China rapidly develops and the UK declines this charitable offering is seeming increasingly incongruous. This week I read in the newspapers that within twenty years the UK could take its turn in running short of food. We might be forced to return to the post-war rationing of seventy years ago. It is hard to conceive of this now - like these stalls in the Chongqing market the UK supermarket shelves are always stacked high. At first glance it seems like the countryside around us is fruitful; yet a swift inspection of the labels indicates that the majority of the produce comes from abroad. Just as a famine can so quickly turn into glut, so can a complacent land of plenty swiftly turn into a place where everything is in short supply. Although here are murmurings too that it could be good for us.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Old House in Chongqing.

Behind inauspicious walls and insignificant entrances

lies the spectacular.

The Chinese seem to have a propensity to convert anything they revere into deities with temples and incense.

I am not sure if this is a statue of a Tao god or a Buddhist god

- I think the former, but the part I remember was that this grand house, hemmed in now by high-rise,

was once owned by a 'foreigner' i.e. foreign to Chongqing, although still Han Chinese, and was a successful merchant who gave succour to his fellow immigrants in the form of charitable donations of rice and grain when they starved,

and while in the west Shakespeare was inventing words for plays, so too were Chinese men inventing plays of their own, and performing them here in silken gown

on this stage across the quadrangle.

And this merchant, like all merchants, swung lanterns from balconies

had quiet alcoves and hidden places

and worshipped the lion for fertility and wealth and luck

but most of all adored the youngest son of the dragon, Pixiu, for his constipation - and desired that just like him

much money would come in, but little would come out.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Sunday Salon: Daughter of the River by Hong Ying

I have read several memoirs over the Christmas break. One, Daughter of the River by Hong Ying was of especial interest. It was kindly sent to me for review by Bloomsbury Books.

Ying was born in 1962 in Chongqing into a time of famine. Flooding had followed drought, and these natural catastrophes exacerbated by an inflexible regime. Under Communism land was no longer owned by anyone but the state. People worked together in communes and their crops dictated by a distant bureaucracy. Looking back it sounds like an audacious experiment; and an attempt by man to control something infinitely more powerful. As I write this I have just read that the airports in Beijing are closed due to snow and the expectation of the lowest temperatures for 40 years. This follows an attempt in October to control the weather and make blue skies, but instead they summoned snow. The weather, it seems, responds to higher forces, and the social experiment in China failed in consequence.

The effects of this famine in China lasted for several years, and during this time millions starved to death. Ying describes desperate tales of suffering and sacrifice, but also, perhaps more poignantly, points out the inequality and unfairness. There was food, she says, but it was in warehouses earmarked for the cities, and so the local population starved to death.

Even though people knew this they said nothing; the slightest complaint, she says, could lead to a labour camps for re-education. In these camps there was no food at all and death came very soon.

The kernel of the book is a quest. It starts when Hong Ying is aged eighteen and she almost sees a man who has long been stalking her. She becomes determined to find out more, and in doing so discovers more about herself, and also the people around her who all seem to resent her. Ying's life is not only impoverished but lonely. Her relationships - with her mother, father and five siblings - seem strained. Even in the wider community she seems despised and her only solace comes from the occasional strange attentions of her history teacher - with whom she falls in love. This, like everything else, ends unhappily and she eventually runs away to Beijing and enrolls at university.

This almost unrelentingly bleak tale then ends in hope because despite all these obstacles Hong Ying eventually wins through. More than anything else Hong Ying is brave and seems determined to tell it all - how the millions of ordinary Chinese lived in the second half of the twentieth century. Water comes from a single tap which sometimes issues yellowish water. The community earth closets are squalid and the citizens have to wait each morning in line. One morning there is a particularly unfortunate little girl in front of her.
'She was about ten years old, moon-faced, with a long thin neck, about my age. She lived on the street where the grain store was located. I'm not sure what brought her to our public toilet, maybe she was just passing by, or maybe the queue at her toilet was too long. I'd made it inside and was second in the queue for one of the pits.

She was squatting over the left-hand pit, when he mouth snapped open, her eyes went round, and her nostrils flared; her whole face underwent a terrifying change as a roundworm emerged from her mouth. She screamed and collapsed amid the muck on the floor. The stumpy woman ahead of me walked over and dragged the girl out of the toilet, warning me on the way out: "That pit's mine, don't you dare take it!"'
Later Hong Ying suffers from the same affliction - and is cured by her father's use of a noxious brew of Chinese medicine.

This was a different Chongqing from the one I saw. When I wandered around the streets near my hotel the place I saw was lively and cheerful: small shops were busy with people trading, goods were piled high, and even the nearby park bustled with people practising musical instruments or Tai Chi. People were clearly not wealthy, but they didn't seem dejected or overwhelmed by poverty either - and had time to enjoy the sensation of being alive.

This relaxed air I found nearly everywhere I went. People seemed to be busy but they were rarely frantic. In the zoo people showed their children the animals or sat at tables and played at cards. In the old streets of Chongqing - the porcelain town established around a thousand years ago in the Song Era - there was again this purposeful bustle.

It was crowded - but not too badly so

As in Ying's account the houses jostling each other for room up the hill in the fog

and porters with poles and baskets

like Ying's mother - although her load had been heavier, and her back bowed where the pole had wedged.

Today the food-shortages seem over:

street vendors spun sugar in different colours to make sweet flowers

for three modern maids;

while a skilled noodle maker entertains a crowd by stretching

and shaping his dough

into long cocoons

of sweets spun nearly as finely as silk.

There is real silk too. The seamstress, passively busy at her trestle table, lines miniature garments

- in shades of lucky pink - with wads of silk ready for winter.

Yet reading Hong Ying's book I realise how fragile this air of affluence must be, and perhaps how local. At the other side of the river, she says, there was and maybe still is, another world. Looking back now I wonder if I caught short snatches of it: there in the sudden noxious whiff of something decaying, or in that glance from the old trinket-seller just after I'd passed, or in that quiet that I seldom heard, but must be there in the early hours when the doors of the shops are shut.

For another very interesting review on this book see this post by Michael Gross.