Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Novel Described

My new novel, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees, has now got a product description on
"Impoverished and oppressed, they'd been promised paradise on earth: a land flowing with milk and honey. But what the settlers found after a devastating sea journey was a cold South American desert where nothing could survive except tribes of nomadic Tehuelche Indians, possibly intent on massacring them. Silas James fears he has been tricked into sacrificing everything he loves for another man's impossible dream. But despite his hatred of the politically adept Edwyn Owen, and under the watchful eye of Indian shaman Yelue, a new culture takes root as an old one passes away. A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees is a lyrical and insightful evocation of the trials of the first Welsh Patagonian colonists as they battle to survive hunger, loss, and each other."
It is presumably written by my editor, Penny Thomas, and I am pleased with it. I think it is concise, accurate and (of course) positive.

Sunday Salon: Mitchell and ...Smiles (and Gwynn and Bryson)

Yesterday in the post I was delighted to receive this:

Front of proof

a proof copy of 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' by David Mitchell which is out in May. I read the first chapter at once and found it stunning - an amazing blend of research and characterisation... (I really like the cover of this proof too - an antique gold with some abstract patterning around the edge reminiscent of the covers of 'Cloud Atlas and 'Number 9 Dream' and I am now beginning to think of as the 'Mitchell brand').

The back of the proof.

I am saving this up for a treat for when I have finished my research on the Huguenots. Although three-quarters of the population are descended from these early refugees there is very little written about them so it is easy to become a relative expert. After my all-too--brief perusal of texts in the Huguenot library I am now working through a couple of books I'd bought earlier: The Huguenots - Their Settlements, Churches and Industries in England and Ireland' by Samuel Smiles (published 1808 and I bought by POD (print on demand*) - presumably John Murray still own the copyright),

and a faded copy of 'Huguenot Heritage -the history and contribution of the Huguenots in Britain' which I was told is the Huguenot bible.

It is by Robin D Gwynn, an academic in New Zealand, and apart from being very well written I think will provide an interesting modern contrast to the Smiles. Already I am seeing some weird similarities between ha happened to the Protestants in Sixteenth Century France and intellectuals in twentieth century China: ailing despots acquire mistresses and through becoming the eyes, ears and mouth of the man they serve they become extraordinarily powerful.

Apart from that I have now finished the 'Seeing Further' book on the Royal Society and science over the last 350 years. This gave such a wide-ranging and interesting summary of learning and opinion that I think it has changed the way I see the world around me. I have not written the review for BookMunch yet because I think there were just so many ideas that I felt I needed to let them settle a while before I could make sense of them and establish something coherent to say.

But maybe before anything else I have to go over my talk on 'the diagnosis and treatment of insanity (especially in women) in the nineteenth century' which I am due to give on Tuesday night - because it's a long time since I gave it last.
* added with thanks to journalist Andreia Azevedo Soares

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Feeding the Hungry Masters.

Unlike the towns with their hundreds and thousands of inhabitants, the Chinese village is small, consisting of just a few houses, maybe twenty in all.

The streets are narrow and look as though they follow ancient plans before the time of motor car or bike. The people seem to live close and communally, one building merging into another with no dividing walls or grounds. The doors and windows seem permanently open and welcoming, and yet in other places are guarded with grilles. There are no carpets or soft furnishings, and the only wall covering is paint - but this, like the rendering beneath, is sparingly applied. It feels raw, uncomfortable, but also genuine.

It was in one of these concrete floored rooms that I came across the young silkworms. The mulberry leaves, stored in baskets

are placed on top of the newly hatched and growing silkworms.

For this first part of their lives (the first few instars) they are kept in baskets lined with polythene to prevent the droppings falling through

and stored on racks.

Here they grow, stop and sniff the air, sleep and moult three times, feeding ever more voraciously until, at last, they have reached their final instar and they are the size of my fingers.

In southern China, these large silkworm larvae are stored on the floors of outhouses.

Each room is filled with their shuffling, constantly chewing bodies. I stood still and listened.

On warmer days, I was told, they eat more quickly and the noise of their masticating mouths is louder still. It is a gentle rustling, purposeful and oddly comforting.

Building after building.

Room after room.

Wang Zhong Lin uses every space that he can find.

Each room brings in 3000-4000 Yuan, he told me and his main problem is that he does not have enough space.

Wang stooped suddenly to pluck out a diseased, dead larvae. After throwing it away in the yard he washed his hands under water from a nearby stand pipe. I looked again at one of the rooms crowded with caterpillars and wondered how he kept everything clean. In some places paths were kept clear, but in others there were just stepping stones.

I asked him if he ever had trouble with diseases, and he said that yes he was once affected by pebrine, and after throwing all the silkworms out had to be careful to clean everything before he started again. Each season the eggs are new, bought in from the local government, so there is no trouble due to the disease being passed from one generation to the next. He inspects frequently and needs to be constantly vigilant.

We watched again. Wang's silkworms, he reported, sleep together. For two days they are motionless before they shed their skins that final time. And then, a few days later they are ready to climb and that is the next part of the story.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Yizhou- the Mulberry Capital of the World.

Even at the end of October Yizhou retains the heat of summer. It is intensely, visibly humid; after a few paces it seemed impossible to contemplate doing much more of anything else at all except maybe take a drink and a rest.

My guide had brought a local guide called Lou. She was wide-eyed, eager, smiling, and I suspect, part of the Zhuang ethnic minority, the largest minority in China.

Yizhou is in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China, a province to the extreme southwest, immediately adjacent to Thailand. Some of the Zhuang migrated out of China when they were persecuted by the Han Chinese hundred of years ago. They have a distinctive traditional dress with head-dresses local to a particular area, and their written as well as their spoken language is different, and so my questions had to be translated twice - from English to Mandarin and then from Mandarin to Zhuang. Yizhou, I was told, (which was only made a city in 1993) has a total population of 'only' about 600,000, but of these 60% is Zhuang.

During the cultural revolution individual families did not own the land. About 5 or 6 villages were grouped together into communes (half in the city, and half in the country). The people were fed collectively in food halls, the crops were dictated by the government and there was very little reward for producing more than the allocated quota. All this changed for one village called Fengyang in Xiaogang in 1978. They secretly agreed to allocate land to the individual farmers, and any food grown above a much reduced quota was sold on the free market for profit. This 'responsibility system' was adopted nationwide once Deng Xiaoping praised the experiment in 1980.

Until then the farmers grew mainly sugar cane with some rice, sweet corn and sweet potato, but now that the crops are dictated by profit rather than the government, the farmers have switched to lucrative mulberry, and they have become more affluent in consequence. The evidence of this affluence, Lou told me, through the other guide, were the concrete drive-ways to houses we passed. And certainly the farmer of this land, Wang Zhong Lin (on the left below), seemed happy. There is still a crop quota of sugar-cane and cassava, but he can now afford to employ other people to grow it.

Around Yizhou there are about 5-6000 mulberry farms. There are three seasons of silkworms a year, when the mulberry is green. The farms produce so many leaves that they are exported to feed silkworms around the rest of the country. October is the end of the season and the plants, on closer inspection looked bedraggled. Wang Zhong Lin pointed out where the leaves had been eaten by something that relished the mulberry as much as the silkworm,

and soon they would be cut down to grown again from the root the following spring.

But just then the mulberry bushes were still just in leaf. The plantation seemed to go on indefinitely to each horizon until submerged in distant fog. How many people devote their lives to raising the silkworm I asked. Everyone, said the guide, maybe half a million people. 500,000 people - all devoting part of their lives to the business of producing silk. I had certainly come to the right place.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Huguenot Library, UCL

One thing I like about London is that there seem to be hundreds of specialist little library collections dotted around the place, and the one I went to yesterday is an excellent example. It was the Huguenot Collection, which is part of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland - a society established in 1885.

There seems to be little written about the Huguenots which is surprising because about 50,000 took refuge the UK after the revocation of the 'irrevocable' edict of Nantes in 1685, and so there are many people in the UK with Huguenot ancestry. One of my forebears - a Huguenot - was called 'de Wild' (subsequently changed to 'Wilde' by future generations to sound 'less foreign' - which is part of the reason I'm interested in them.

The Huguenots were, indirectly, persecuted because of the invention of the printing press. Cheaper access to the bible meant that it was read by the general population; and the contrast between the philosophy there and the corruption of the Catholic church became apparent. For instance, as a fund raiser, the Pope had instigated a system of 'Indulgences'. These were pardons sold by the clergy for anything from incest to lying.

Some of these readers protested and formed their own religious group: the protestants. After that, printing, distributing and even reading the bible were offences all over Catholic Europe punishable sometimes by the confiscation of property and sometimes by death. England was more liberal (well, most of the time) and so some of the most persecuted felt encouraged to come and settle here. Favoured places included Norwich (which was the country's second biggest town), Canterbury, and Soho and Spitalfields in London.

In Spitalfields they produced silk and some became wealthy merchants, and so it was to Spitalfields I was intending to go yesterday...before I became distracted by the library. I'd discovered it only that morning on a lucky little search on the internet, and rang them from the train to see if I could visit. The librarian was very welcoming and gave me instructions on how to get there.

Although part of UCL, the library is housed in one of the outlying buildings of the UCL hospital. It is an inauspicious-looking place next to a petrol station. There are no signs and the foyer was crammed with crates of flattened empty cardboard boxes. I looked at the instruction I'd hastily written down on the train: 'Take the lift to the first floor.'

It moved slowly, as though someone somewhere was heaving it up by rope. The thought occurred to me that it might be like this someone could disappear. Eventually the lift doors opened into another foyer. There were several unmarked doors, partly glazed so I could see that they led to offices, and a phone with a notice to ring a number for entrance (and another number to dial in case of a heart attack) .

By now I was convinced I had come to the wrong place, but I picked up the phone anyway.
'No, you're right,' said a voice. 'Now go down two flights of steps.'

I tried a door, and miraculously, it seemed, it led to stairs. So, even though it felt a little strange to go back down when I'd just come up, I carefully counted myself down two flights and came to another foyer ...and another phone. I lifted it up feeling more encouraged - at least here was a temporary-looking sign 'special collections'.

'Ah yes,' said a voice, 'come in. I'll let them know you're here...'

After all that it was almost a disappointment to find a room full of books. It is a wonderful little library, though.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Simon Singh's continuing fight for reform

Today Simon Singh goes to the Court of Appeal in his continuing battle for libel reform. There is more about it in this excellent article he has written for the Daily Telegraph today.

He finishes:
"It is too late to change the libel laws for Peter Wilmshurst and myself; but we can help future scientists, doctors, human rights journalists, biographers and anybody writing about matters of public interest. Over 30,000 people have signed the petition for libel reform and I would strongly urge you to also visit and add your name"
Good luck, Simon! (my emphasis in bold).

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Salon: SEEING FURTHER edited by Bill Bryson

Today, and for the last couple of days, I've been reading SEEING FURTHER. This large, and generally fascinating book has been edited by Bill Bryson, with (I've just realised) Jon Turney as contributing editor.

The subtitle is 'The Story of Science and the Royal Society' and I am learning a lot. The chapters, each by a different eminent science writer or novelist, are pleasingly short and engaging, and there is a generous smattering of illustrations. Even topics such as the history of bridges (from Telford onwards) by Henry Petroski is made interesting (which I wouldn't have thought possible), and I've just finished a fascinating overview of the history of X-ray crystallography and how it is used to elucidate the structure of large molecules by Georgina Ferry.

Another of my favourite chapters so far (and there have been many) has been the first by James Gleick. This was about some of the early members and there was one called Colonel James Long who had an amusing taste for the bizarre. After I had finished that chapter I found the Colonel on Wikipedia and discovered that as a magistrate he had been responsible for the hanging of several women as witches. During the Civil War he was a Royalist and was captured by the Parliamentarians, but when Oliver Cromwell went hawking with him he 'fell in love' with his company so much that he was allowed to wear his sword. In SEEING FURTHER Long is described as a devotee of 'astrology, witchcraft and natural magic' and in contrast to Cromwell, his fellow member of the Royal Society, John Aubrey, found him 'an admirable extempore orator for a harangue' (or as Gleick puts it 'never stopped gabbling'). Gleick also says that he presented so many observations to the society that the 'minute-taker sometimes sounds weary.' Excellent stuff.

I shall write a full review for Bookmunch.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Soft Sleeper

The companion of Mao's final days was a woman called Zhang Yufeng. In his last few years Mao was afflicted with a type of motor neurone disease that gradually paralysed his left side and eventually prevented him from speaking. Only Zhang Yufeng could make out what the chairman was trying to say and it gave her extraordinary power. In effect she was Mao because only she was allowed to attend him, so all his orders came through her.

Zhang Yufeng had been attendant on a train, and I think of her now as I recall the attendant on the train to Yizhou. 'My' attendant was solid-looking, her only acknowledgment of my passing a sharp bark that I had money showing from my money belt, and she watched impassively as I stuffed it back in again. My guide Joanne exchanged a few words with her and I manhandled my luggage past her down the narrow corridor to my cabin.

The cabin contained four bunks in pale blue dralon with white cotton drapes over the back. Beneath the window was a small table, also with a cloth, and also by this time another occupant's magazines and thermos. The cloths were all slightly grimy and stained, and the floor carpeted and sticky with dirt. But on top of everything the sheets and pillow-cases were clean, and although the place smelt dusty, it was, I thought, dry-dirt.

Joanne had a word with the other occupant - a grandmother, probably just a little older than me with her grand-daughter who was about three or four.
'She's going all the way, to the end of the line.' Joanne told me.
I grinned at her, and although she didn't grin back she didn't seem unfriendly.

I was supposed to put my case in the space above the corridor, but my case was too heavy so I shoved it beneath the table. The grandmother didn't seem to mind. She was slightly chubby, about the same height as me with wavy collar length hair. She was dressed for a her long journey in jogging pants, and she had already removed her shoes and was reclining on one of the lower bunks. The little girl nestled against her rather like a solitary pup, and already knew how to be coquettish. Her short hair was fastened into two small bunches with pink ribbon at the top of her head like ears. She could count to twenty in English and also sing London Bridge is Falling Down. Apart from doing a little drawing for me

she spent most of the time eating a bowl of pot noodle which was certainly as big as her upper torso, maybe her head as well. This eating of the pot noodle seemed to go on for hours. She sat on the edge of her bed with her chop sticks and seemed to eat one at a time with a great deal of concentration.

But before that, Joanne departed - I had only known her for a couple of days but already she seemed a friend - and I unpacked my small rucksack and made the other lower bunk my home.

In the two upper bunks were two young people. Nobody spoke much. Apart from the music piped into the carriage, it was quiet. Each bunk had a couple of pillows and a quilt. After a few hours into the journey the ceiling light faded, as did the music, and we all pretended to sleep. I think the grandmother and the child actually did. They were curled up around each other on their bunk. I think I might have slept too, I certainly dozed, the rhythm of the train quite soothing and lulling.

The main advantage of a soft sleeper is that you can close the door so it is more secure. The trouble with closing the door is that it rapidly becomes stuffy. So we left it open. Even so I felt quite safe. Joanne warned me to keep my valuables on me and to watch my case, so I did. I kept my money belt out of sight and I could constantly feel the heavy presence of my case beside me.

Whenever the boy in the bunk above me moved it sounded like rain falling - even this was calming. The toilet was only as bad as the toilets on any British train, the open window keeping it all smelling sweet. Once I went to find boiling water and walked through the canteen. It had beige oil cloths on the tables and the only people sitting there looked to be generals in a tatty green uniforms. Each was frowning at a calculating machine and writing in numbers. Another time I went past the kitchen and heard the pans crashing and smelt the steam and oil as the chefs prepared breakfast.

When it was still dark the attendant opened our doors and nudged the two occupants of the top bunks awake. They stirred quietly. About half an hour later the train came into the station and the two almost silently disembarked. The grandmother, who was fairly round, climbed nimbly up to the vacated bunk and went to sleep leaving her grand-daughter still curled up in the bunk below her.

Dawn came with a few gentle chords from a zither, and I washed my hands again with the medicated wipes, ate some of the fruit and snacks I'd bought in Chongqing, and watched as we stopped at another station. An assortment of people disembarked - girls in heels and the high fashion shorts I'd seen in Shanghai, older people in more traditional clothing of jackets and trousers, vendors selling combs and cooked sweetcorn, and men carrying an incredibly large number boxes on their backs . When we moved off again - accompanied by a series of clanks and creaks - the smell of cigarette smoke (the army personnel all came through nonchalantly smoking through the 'no smoking' soft sleeper section) was displaced by diesel fumes. Everyone coughed. A guard, in a pointed-roof box that was such a close fit that it seemed to be built around him, waved us out with flags. He looked as serious and as impassive as a guard outside a palace.

I took out my book and started to read. Outside was still the gloom of a foggy dawn. The scenery disappeared and then reappear again as we were swallowed by tunnels. Then, all at once, it was light.

Through the train windows I saw terraces and those strange small mountains of China's Karst.

Each scrap of land terraced.

Old adobe cottages with painted yellow walls and tiled and patched roofs, ugly newer buildings of bricks and concrete - perhaps a relic of Mao's time, a paddy fields.

and then people in conical hats and ploughs with water buffalo, everyone busy working, just as they've always done - century, after century after century.

The trained slowed. The attendant grunted something and pointed at my bags. It was time to make myself ready. Then, at precisely the time it said it would arrive, eighteen hours after I had left Chongqing, my train arrived at Yizhou.

There was no hurry. The attendant watched me heave my over-large case down onto the platform, and then I waved good-bye to the grandmother and my friend, her grand-daughter. The platform was almost empty and the air was hot and humid. At last I had reached the silkworm country.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Taking Leave of Chongqing.

Chongqing train station. My large suitcase is fed into the x-ray machine and I go through the turn-style into the waiting room that says 'soft sleeper'. The seats are sumptuous, mimicking black leather. There is a TV screen with some Chinese talent show murmuring away to one side.

Joanne says she will wait with me and I feel a panicky realisation that very soon I shall be on a train in the middle of the vast and alien country of China.
'In a while they'll announce your journey. The door will open at the end."
'Are there stairs down to the platform?' I ask, remembering the steep flight at Hangzhou.
Joanne doesn't know.
'Can you write 'Yizhou' in Chinese characters for me?'
'So I can show someone. Ask them if this is the right place.'
She shakes her head. 'Don't talk to anyone.'
'Tell no one where you're going.'
'People make trouble.'

The plan I had is falling to pieces. I was going to rely on strangers. I was going to show whoever turned out was in my carriage my piece of paper with the Chinese characters, and they would tell me when to get off. Now I see myself being carried away across half of China. Hostile China. China where the local gangs are in cahoots with the police and people disappear.

I must look scared because Joanne suddenly changes her mind about leaving me in the waiting room.
'I stay,' she says. 'I tell the guard. I make sure she know you get off at Yizhou.'
'Thank you,' I say. I am more grateful that she could possibly know.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mao and the Three Gorges Dam

Mao identified with several emperors from China's past: Zhou, Qin and Sui Yangdi. They were all great unifiers, subsuming, annexing and generally expanding the 'China' of the time, until it became the enormous country it is today. They were also cruel and regarded human life as expendable. Mao's views were similar; his nonchalant views on the atomic bomb reportedly shocked both the Indian and Russian premiers. China's population is so vast it could afford to lose 300 million, he said. His attitude to famine was the same: a shrug of the shoulders. So millions die - well, we can make more...

There were other similarities between Mao and his emperor forebears too. Qin famously burnt books and regarded the works of Confucius as sapping the country of its creative strength; and Mao burnt books too. During the cultural revolution, he went even further: intellectuals would do well to learn from peasants in the countryside, he said, and sent them there for years at a time. And if this sounds an idyllic retreat it wasn't. The life of the peasant was back-breakingly hard, doubly so if you weren't used to it, and Dr. Li describes it vividly in his book, The Private Life of Chairman Mao.

Another similarity was the ambition of these emperors to make their mark. Qin started the Great Wall and made a terracotta army to accompany him into the afterlife (as well as some great secret tomb which has yet to be opened); Sui Yangdi was responsible for a large part of the Grand Canal linking the Yellow River to the Yangtze; while Mao instigated the Three Gorges Dam. This was finally approved in 1992, fifteen years after his death.

I didn't see the dam in China, but I did see an exhibition of land now submerged. Behind my hotel was a park, one of the highest peaks, and if there hadn't been such a pea-souper I would have had magnificent views of the Yangtze and the Jialing rivers. Instead I saw this

a beautiful red pagoda and underneath a tunnel, with a long painting of the Three Gorges before the dam was built.

I bought a book which reproduced it (click on the pictures to see the detail).

The guide was young and spoke English in short well-practised bursts. Questions seemed to disturb her so I asked few. She pointed to a red line on the map and told me it was the level of the water now. Beneath the red line were cities and fragment of cities.

'7, 114 emigrants from Chang Shou County,' she said.
'What happened to them?'
'They were given more land.'

'Here 65, 590 emigrants. They had to leave their ancestral home.'

'Here 54, 582. This was an important historic site...A temple was lifted stone by stone to higher ground...'

159, 333 people. For a moment I imagined them leaving the land their ancestors had famed for centuries, leaving the graves, the houses, the communities of people fracturing and having to start again.

'Where do they go?'
'They are given land - away from here.'

But this land they are given, I have read since, tends to be a in a province far away to the northwest where the ground is cold and stubbornly infertile. They are also placed strategically: a deliberate dilution of one of China's 55 ethnic restless minorities.

I didn't know that then. The picture was remarkable mainly for its length and scope. To my western eyes it seemed little more than a sumptuously illustrated map, and already it was becoming mouldy in its subterranean housing. But for a few seconds as I stared at the tiny buildings it seemed like I could hear panicked voices and gun shots of a forced exodus. I saw the waters rise to the red dotted line and then the windows of the dolls' houses pock with faces. The lucky ones in the high part of town now skirted a new shore.

I know that the Three Gorges dam has brought good: clean energy and flood prevention. But just as it has saved lives so it has also annihilated a precious past: temples have had to be rebuilt, archeological sites have been lost for ever. And 1.24 million people have been displaced. As the guide listed yet another mass migration an overwhelming sadness caught me like a wave, and I found myself blinking. All those people... I suppose it was a little like Mao blinked when he attended the funeral of one of his old generals; but according to Dr Li's account, Mao had no tears. Nothing affected him: the death of one man nor the death and displacement of millions.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Today's book pile

I have started from the bottom...

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Turing Test by Chris Beckett

I've just finished The Turing Test by Chris Beckett. This is a collection of short stories which had the great distinction of winning the Edge Hill Short Story Prize in 2009.

Several of the stories feature a future in which the real world has a virtual world superimposed on it in an effort to conserve resources. There's a hierarchy and a kind of distrustful discrimination between the two populations of real people and virtual people. The virtual people can earn themselves higher resolution and those at the bottom of the virtual social scale are low res with moon faces, lines for mouths and dots for eyes. It's clearly a very well worked out place and I can imagine Chris Beckett developing these into a novel.

My favourite stories are those that involved a more anthropological element. There was a world in which the women lived in walled cities and the men marauded around outside, having to face an initiation test to mate with the fertile women in a tower; then in the last story ('The Marriage of Sky and Sea') a man from space lands in a planet with a large moon that pulls not just the sea but the ground too. It has a superb fairy-tale feel and parts of it are beautifully written too.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A Dip in the River

At the moment I am reading 'The Private Life of Chairman Mao' by Zhisui Li.

Dr Li was Mao's personal physician, a position which made him responsible for the Chairman's well-being until the dictator died. Although Li experienced a certain amount of pride and jubilation in taking the role, he also makes it clear that he really had no choice in the matter. If he refused Mao his life in China and that of his family would be made unbearable, and like everyone else in Mao's entourage he was in constant fear of falling out of favour, because this would mean banishment and impoverishment.

It makes fascinating reading: in the extract that follows, Mao has insisted on swimming in the Pearl river even though his bodyguards have deemed it unsafe, which inevitably means that his entourage, including the doctor, has to swim in the water too:
'The river was more than a hundred yards wide, and the current was slow. The water, just as I had feared, was filthy. I saw occasional globs of human waste float by. The pollution did not bother Mao. He floated on his back, his big belly sticking up like a round ballooon, legs relaxed as if he were resting on a sofa. The water carried him downstream, and only rarely did he use his arms or legs to propel himself forward.'

The reason that Mao was making the dip (and equally foolhardy excursions into the rivers Xiang and Yangtze) in 1957 was a metaphorical one. Mao was under pressure from the central leadership in Beijing to reign back his agricultural and industrial reforms, and he wanted to test the loyalty of Liu Shaoqi (his heir apparent) and Deng Xiaoping. Furthermore, since Khrushchev's denouncement of Stalin, he had felt insecure, this was because he considered himself to be China's Stalin, and thought that he too might be denounced with a Chinese Khrushchev. So he let it be known that he intended to resign as party chairman, and having lit this touchpaper, retired to the provinces to observe the consequent political intrigue in Beijing from afar.

After the dip all the people who had said it would be too unsafe to bathe fawned after him, admiring his strength and power, and generally chastising themselves for being wrong. However, everyone knew that it was more than Mao's aquatic abilities that were under scrutiny here, and his reply praising the provincial authorities for their support was an indication of where he would shortly be turning for help in his struggle for political survival.

When he returned to Beijing, Mao would hear all his suspicions confirmed in the speech Lui made to the Eight Party Congress: he denounced the 'cult of personality' and praised the 'collective leadership'. It was no doubt a decisive and dramatic moment - and one that immediately shortened Lui's life expectancy.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Sun Kings by Stuart Clark and an interview with the author

Review of the Sun Kings.

Think back to 2003. To be honest, all I remember of that year was the invasion of Iraq, the publication of one of my books, and my elder son departing for university. But in October, just as my son was settling into his new life, and the war in Iraq was rumbling on, something strange was happening in the skies. Look at the accounts of the year 2003 and it is little mentioned, but according to Stuart Clark's account in The Sun Kings this 'happening' was dramatic. The sun was pocked with spots, and above them came spurting fountains of light. The effect upon the earth several hours later was even more dramatic. Communication systems went down, areas of the earth were blacked out and the paths of aircraft diverted from anywhere near the poles for fear of subjecting the passengers and crew to dangerous doses of radiation. It seems a small consolation that the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis were spectacular.

However these effects pale in comparison to an earlier similar episode in the nineteenth century. Then, the aurora displays in the night had not only been magnificent, but had extended great distances from both poles, and when dawn had come it had been reddened with a strange sinister light. At the same time telegraph operators received shocks from surges, and the whole system was awash with an unknown power from outside.

Yet only two astronomers reported the large sun spots and flares that had initiated these displays, and only one of these, Richard Carrington, linked these signs of a magnetic storm to what had happened on the sun. And, as is often the way of things in science, his ideas were initially received with scepticism.

Like an opening scene in a thriller Stuart Clark then winds back to describe how this strange behaviour of the sun was investigated - before Carrington and then afterwards - gradually revealing why the sun behaves as it does, before going on to make a chilling prediction for the near future.

It turns out that the sun behaves cyclically - going through periods of activity as demonstrated by sun spots, before becoming quiet again. Just recently the sun has been relatively quiet, and a more active period is expected. If there are more sun spots and solar flares then we can expect disruption to our communication system - an unpleasant prospect given our dependency on it.

There is one other startling prospect too; and that is the world will become colder. According to some scientists the reason that the earth has been warming since the industrial revolution is not due to the build up of carbon dioxide but because the sun has been quiet. A quiet sun means fewer magnetic storms, and since magnetic storms are thought to cause clouds, the skies have recently been clearer. Clear skies allow more energy from the sun to reach the earth's surface and it becomes warmer. Hence a period of greater solar activity will cause the earth to cool.

It is a comforting thought - that it is not man's activity that has caused global warming but a natural consequence of the sun's cycle. However, even this turns out to be true I don't think it is a reason to become any less careful with how we use and abuse our planet. Either way we are on the cusp of running out of oil. It seems a woeful shame to use this precious resource just for fuel. We have to find better sources of energy, because judging from the conclusion of the Sun Kings we may soon be needing more of it to keep ourselves warm.

Just as Dava Sobel says 'The Sun Kings' is 'a captivating , fast-paced, beautifully crafted story.' - and, I would add, essential reading.

Photo: Simon Wallace

Stuart Clark is the senior editor for space science for the European Space Agency's web portal team. A former editor of Astronomy Now, and an award-winning author, his books include The Sun Kings, Galaxy, Deep Space and Big Questions: Universe.

Holding a first class honours degree and a PhD in astrophysics, his writing also appears in UK magazines and newspapers such as New Scientist and The Times. He is a regular voice on BBC radio and various podcasts discussing the latest astronomical results. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a Visiting Fellow of the University of Hertfordshire and a former vice-chair of the Association of British Science Writers.



Questions about The Sun Kings

CD: What initiated your interest in solar flares?
SC: The Sun has always fascinated me. At university I was told that Richard Carrington discovered solar flares in 1859 – without any details. I remember thinking at the time, 'what would it be like to see something that no one else had seen?' Later I saw a television programme that recreated a moment when some monks saw what was probably a meteorite hitting the Moon. Again, that same fascination of seeing something for the first time gripped me. Eventually, I began to seek out accounts of astronomers seeing things for the first time and the more I dug around Carrington's solar flare discovery, the more fascinated I became. The canvas of that apocalyptic event opened up, as did Carrington's tragic life, and the way this singular event changed astronomy. I knew I had to rescue this story from the dusty archives, diaries and letters in which I found it and bring it to a wider audience.

CD: The descriptions of the effects of the solar flare are quite frightening. Yet, I'd never heard of it before - except in the context of the 'cause' of the Northern Lights. Why do you think the effect of solar flares is not better known?
SC: It's a complete mystery to me. I could not believe what I was reading in my research - hundreds of eyewitness accounts that talked of burning purple arches in the sky, of the landscape painted in dancing figures of fire, and the oceans stained the colour of blood. This was epic stuff, not widely known today. I could not believe that I had stumbled across such a powerful, yet largely forgotten, story.

CD: Apart from the fascinating science I also found the lives of the scientists very interesting. Carrington is the main character in the book, but there are others that are equally interesting. Is there one you particularly admire?
SC: It's very difficult to choose; I loved them all. The more I read their letters and papers, the more I came to know them. These men and women of a century and a half ago became as real to me as friends. I liked and admired them all, even though it was clear that they all had their human weaknesses. If I have to single out anyone other than Carrington, then it has to be William Herschel. His discovery of the infrared radiation and his call to turn astronomy from simple mapping to explaining the celestial objects was truly ahead of its time. And he has an inspiring human story of rags to riches.

CD: Is Carrington's House still standing? Have you ever been there?
SC: Sadly no, it's gone now. And was long gone when I started my research. You can still find Carrington Close and Dome Road in Redhill to mark where it once stood. I did find a gentleman who had lived in the house though. He had developed a passionate interest in Carrington and had a large collection of papers and books that he very generously allowed me to use. He is called Norman Keer, and he even wrote a romanticised pamphlet about Carrington.

CD: Carrington seems to have been an unusual character, and the end of his life is tragic. In a way it could be said he was destroyed by love. What do you think he might have gone on to do?
SC: I think the key moment in Carrington's life was the death of his father. Before then, he was a contented bachelor, living off the income from his father's brewery and pursuing an extraordinary programme of astronomical observations. He had constructed a excellent star chart and was in the throes of cataloguing sunspots, these strange blemishes on the Sun that are the seats of the solar flares. When he had to run the brewery and keep up these day and night observations - as well as perform all the calculations by hand to turn the measurements into useable data - he was done for. He suffered a nervous breakdown, sold his observatory and then fell into the disastrous marriage that finished him off: unbelievably tragic.

CD: Did you make any interesting discoveries while researching the book?
SC: You bet! It seemed like I was making them on a daily basis. I would unearth something, or read a sentence, and another little piece of the puzzle would fall into place. Perhaps the biggest realisation was that the Carrington solar storm and the worldwide aurora that it precipitated was the tipping point for astronomy. No longer were astronomers concerned about mapping the stars to aid navigation, now they wanted to study the celestial objects to understand what they were, and how they could affect us on Earth. It was such a profound change, that it plunged British astronomy into a crisis, which was only resolved in the 1870s by the Devonshire commission mandating the Royal Greenwich Observatory to begin astrophysical observations.

CD: The Sun Kings has an unusual structure for a work of non-fiction in that it starts with the puzzle and then proceeds to explain this in a series of flashbacks. It works very well: what made you think of writing it like this?
SC: I was so captivated by this story that I wanted to tell it in the most dramatic way possible – whilst keeping everything factual. So I thought to myself, how would I write this if it were a novel. Storytelling has always been a fascination of mine; I love a compelling text that turns a story into an engine that demands to go forwards. I popped in the back story along the way, hopefully treating those episodes as narratives in their own right, and all the time I tried to make each individual chapter self-contained and satisfying, whilst at the same time building the narrative into a much bigger whole. I'm pretty pleased with it; I'd like to try the same thing again. I have another astronomy related story in mind, 18th century this time. Again it's not a widely known story. I also have a physics idea that could be treated the same way. I must get around to writing the proposals.

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
SC: A memorable encounter with a snail? Let me think. No, I can't say I have. I always avoid stepping on them if I see them in my way.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
SC: I have absolutely no idea. I tend to recoil from pride because I always feel I could have done something better or I'm looking forward to the next challenge. Mind you, it was certainly an exhilarating moment when I heard that The Sun Kings had been shortlisted for the Royal Society book prizes. And I wasn't disappointed to be a runner- up. I was so happy to be on the short list of six – for a few weeks it even made me think that perhaps I could write after all.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
SC: Hmmm. I'm a bit rubbish at these kinds of questions. I think I tend to always be looking ahead rather than considering past events but I suppose it was the beginning, in 1993, of my ongoing working and personal relationship with my wife.

CD: What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?
SC: Another hard one. I find injustice, dumb tragedy and premature death pretty hard to take. Perhaps that's because I'm not religious so I never have the excuse 'its part of a larger plan' to fall back on – nor the life-after-death get-out clause. I once confided in a friend that I found the whole idea of death – of non-existence – a bit too freaky. "Me too," he said, "I'm thinking of writing a letter."

CD: If there were one thing you'd change about yourself what would it be?
SC: I'd like to be a better writer; I'd like to be a better guitar player. Oh, and I'd definitely like to be more efficient so I could achieve more every day.

CD: What is happiness?
SC: Gosh, where do I start? Listening to Rush, playing guitar in a rock band, drinking champagne on holiday with my wife, learning something new about the universe, seeing somewhere I've never seen before, meeting up with friends to chat about nothing, finishing the day having written something, reading a good book, sitting in the sunshine. I could go on, the list is pretty long for me.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
SC: Get dressed. Actually, that's not always true.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Clean sweep

Today, a clean sweep. I have filled six dustbin bags with my work and shoved them out with the rubbish. Just now the lorry has come with its powerful teeth chomping through book proposals, drafts of novels, and the associated research. Sometimes I looked at the writing and the kind and encouraging comments from my agents but mostly I just plunged on determinedly not thinking very much about anything at all.

My noticeboard is clear now. The book piles slightly reduced but still too high. It's time to start on something else.