Thursday, April 26, 2012

A little Sojourn in Mycenaean Greece

After the weird warmth of March, April has turned out showery and cool so I have decided to retreat to sunnier climes and a time when a 'city' meant a collection of 10,000 people: a place called 'Classical Athens'.

Each time I read about Ancient Athens I find out a little more, which of course makes me realise how much more there is to know, and also why some people devote their lives to learning about the couple of hundred years of happenings in this tiny area of earth. In many ways it is the start of the modern world.

This time I started with the Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilisations, and reminded myself of what went before: the Mycenaean civilisation straddling a hill top

with its elaborate gate,

a cyclopean wall made of rough gigantic blocks (allegedly moved by the cyclops),

and startling network of two-storeyed houses,



and burial pits.

They were Indo-Europeans - and therefore had migrated from the east with two-wheeled chariots and horses.

It was 1400 BC. They made gold masks (this one found in the burial pit above)

and exquisite pieces of art,

and interred their dead in tombs

whose artfully engineered entrances

and ceilings have a beehive's simplicity and strength.

They traded with Asia Minor and Egypt, and even borrowed a writing system from the Minoan civilisation on Crete. Their system, 'Linear B', is deciphered, and yet the Minoan system 'Linear A' is not - a strange thing. They were Imperialists, aggressive and liked to make themselves felt: pieces of Mycenaean culture have been found as far away as Cornwall and they established a series of city states around the Black Sea.

But in 1100 BC it all disappeared. One book says it was the Dorians who were to blame, another the Sea People, another says it is a mystery. Whatever the reason, the trading stopped and with it the record-keeping, and the people devoted themselves to making geometric patterns on pots. It took another three hundred years before the city states began to wake again and classical Greece began to evolve. By this time Linear B had been forgotten, and a newer, more efficient and easier phonetic system had been adopted from the Phoenicians. All the was left of the Mycenae culture were their myths of gods and possibly equally mythical accounts of their history: Athena, Demeter and Persephone...and Troy.

(pictures taken from our trip to Mycenae and Athens October 2010)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Women by T.C. Boyle

I've been meaning to read T.C. Boyle's work for some time. I downloaded The Women onto my Kindle a few weeks ago. The book was there for some time, and I eventually read it when I went to the London Book Fair a Kindle being lighter to carry than a book (and, since T.C. Boyle was an unknown entity, it also meant I could read something else if his writing proved to be not to my taste - but I needn't have worried).

I found The Women an addictive read. His writing is the sort that grabs and then keeps a strong hold of my attention. His vocabulary is excellent, and thanks to my Kindle I have come across a few unfamiliar words.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an early twentieth century architect of Welsh descent (and judging from photographs had a passing resemblance to my father, another Welshman). He is the man responsible for such beautiful buildings as the Guggenheim Art Gallery in New York. He was a visionary and innovator but, like so many men of genius, had character flaws. He was selfish, self-centred and something of a womanizer.

The novel centres on his relationship with four women: his last wife, Oligivanna Lazovich Milanoff who was a young Russian emigré, and proved to be long-lasting, then Maude Miriam Noel who was an artist, and actively pursued him before becoming his nemesis, and then, his soul-mate Mamah, a translator and suffragist, and the wife of one of his clients, who was only ever his mistress, and Kitty who was his first wife, married him when she was aged seventeen and gave him several children. Each of these women were interesting, but it was Miriam who seemed to dominate the book for me. Even when she didn't directly feature, she seemed to be lurking. She interested me so much I looked up the real Miriam and there are a series of photos here. Like all of Frank Lloyd Wright's women she was handsome - but the tumultuous relationship she seemed to endure with Wright seems to show clearly in face.

The story is told by one of Wright's students, a Japanese man, and his story was also interesting. I very much liked the way his story was revealed in the introductions to the sections, and through footnotes. It was a useful device to show Wright's racism (which was probably not particularly outstanding in his day).

Since I found I really liked T.C. Boyle's style, I have also downloaded his short stories on audible and have been listening to those in the gym. I like these so much I find myself looking forward to going - just so I can hear them. Today I ordered a few more of his novels and short stories. I am very happy to see that he is a prolific writer and has written twelve novels and eight collections of short stories and I am looking forward very much to reading them.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The London Book Fair: General Thoughts.

I had long heard about the London Book Fair, but had once been told by an agent that the fair was really not the place for authors, and was curious to see if he was right.

It is held in Earls Court (a slightly run-down area of London) which is a conjoined twin of a building, bulging out into two huge spaces. These spaces are filled with stands arranged in aisles arranged in what appears to be a pecking order (presumably dictated by cost) with the big publishing houses commanding large central spaces, the medium-sized independents paying homage around these, and the smaller publishers tucked in amongst the remaindered books, digital printing, self- and foreign publishers stands in hall two.

The larger stands (e.g those belonging to Harper Collins, Hachette, Penguin and Random House) have enclosed areas with screens to waist height enclosing tables in a coffee house style arrangement, and an entrance desk with a couple of receptionists policing it. Quite often there is a gaggle of people waiting at this desk, presumably awaiting an audience, because inside there are editors (one or two of whom I recognised). There is a certain quality about the people who wait. They are tall. The women wear skirts and heels. There were suits and briefcases and also that intensity of purpose of the truly determined. Later I saw them with their eyes shut, sitting on stools while a masseur kneaded at their shoulders and back.

The smaller stands (the majority) have merely an alcove with a book rack and a few chairs. Those wishing to attract custom sometimes had bowls of sweets or cakes, and sometimes, in the evening, waiters bringing in tray of canapes and drinks. There would be a sudden knot of people then, with clapping and raised voices, as a book or new line was launched.

There were also pastel-coloured stands with matching soft pastel-coloured furniture belonging to publishers specialising in books for children, and one of two of the European publishers had more imaginative arrangements with, for example, books dangling from the direction of the ceiling on string in a book-rain effect. There were also spaces devoted to book associations e.g. translators, booksellers and publishers.

Of course, almost everywhere there were books. But it was a pretend world. These books were not for sale, and some of them were dummies: just the cover enclosing a wadge of blank pages. Once or twice I spoke to the smiling attendant, especially if they looked a little lonely or bored. I heard about World Book Night, and flicked through the selection of famous books repackaged in a generic format with their original cover design as motif. I also saw some beautiful Chinese books of paintings, the paper reworked to seem like something old and textured.

And then there was the fascinating section on digital books and I had an exciting glimpse of possibilities: pages that turned over electronically to reveal not just pages of text but audio links and videos of the author speaking (not necessarily a desirable thing, I pointed out to the seller, and he agreed). With the advent of ebooks, there are now opportunities for specialist firms linking author and publisher, and enhancing the experience of reading a book to incorporate all senses, except for smell. It is interesting, but it can never replace or match the mind of the reader and the vast universe created by just a few words.

I also came upon my own book on the books from Wales stand (the one with the tree in the middle),

and discussed the possibilities for another book with Mick Felton, Seren's publisher.

The part I had come to see was the market focus and that was the China publishing industry. Some talks were commercial with sophisticated audiovisual effects, and didn't seem well attended. It was interesting to chat to the Chinese sellers and look through what is on offer in Chinese bookstores. The best part for me was sitting at the English Pen talks in the Pen Literary Café. It is a good idea to arrive early to get a good seat and each time I did this I met someone interesting. The first time I spoke to an Indian writer, and the second time to a correspondent from a Chinese newspaper, and talking to these, as well as the talks themselves were the highlight of the fair. It was worth coming down to London just for that.

Afterwards I met fellow Society of Author member Colin Shelbourn and had coffee, and once we met Lisa Dowdeswell. After a day of meeting strangers I much appreciated seeing their friendly faces.

On balance, I am glad I went because I learnt so much from the talks, but I think, for me, the London Book Fair is going to be a once in a life-time experience.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

London Book Fair. Event 3

The third event was under the auspices of the British Council and was in a room upstairs (which took me ages to find). It featured two Tibetan writers talking to Maya Jaggi about incorporating ancient myths in contemporary literature.

Alai (in the middle) was born in 1959 at the start of the Great Leap Forward. Until he went to school he spoke a Tibetan dialect and in his first year had to learn 300 sentences in Mandarin. He now writes Tibetan stories in Mandarin. Only in the 1980s was the Tibetan language taught in schools. Although the schools were in poor condition they were appreciated because it was a chance to be educated.

Tsering Norbu is slightly younger. He was born in a traditional four-sided courtyard style house on two floors. It housed 30 families. He was taught in Tibetan from his primary through secondary to tertiary levels. There were no published text books - just work published by teachers.

Alai said that legends are important in Tibetan villages. The epic of King Gesar is still sung by bards today, and he was commissioned by Canongate to rewrite it as part of Canongate's Myth Series (there is more about this on Bruce Humes's website here). It is the longest myth known in the world today. The myth is being rebuilt with the British Council and has proved to be a difficult project due to the extent of the piece, and the influence of Buddhism on the original. At the moment the Canongate myth is only available in Chinese - an English version is expect in 2013.

Another general difficulty as regards Tibetan literature is the religious element. Communists do not believe in religion; but the Tibetans, for their part, do not believe that tradition can be broken in a couple of decades.

China is not ready for pluralisation of cultures. Alai believes that the greater the variety of cultures in a society, the more beautiful it will be - as in nature. By 'culture' he means not just the religion but the whole culture, and not just Tibetan but all the minorities in China.

Alai found it difficult to get his book Red Poppies published because it is about a sensitive period in history (the 1930s) and the death of a facet of Tibetan culture. He finished the book in 1994 and at the time publication proved difficult because it was thought to be unprofitable and also an issue with censorship. In 1998 opinions had changed and it was published and became a hot seller. He sold the English version for $150 000 in 1999.

However, he said that money was a secondary issue - he writes for the joy of writing.

Tsering Norbu pointed out that it is important for the majority of people that a country is stable. Most people do not want turbulence - they just want a happy life. Having been witness to such 'turbulence' he knws that what happens is often not accurately reported by either the government or the West.

The Tibetans now lives in a secular society, but this secular culture must be nourished in a modern sense. People tend to take sides, they become politicised and this has happened throughout history. But as well as wars there have also been marriages between the Tibetans the Han Chinese, and the Manchu - and the and these have downplayed the anger. That is what is needed now - more marriages between ideologies to discourage turbulence and unrest.

It was a very interesting session and I much appreciated hearing thee new and different viewpoints of a world. At the end of the session Tsering Norbu handed out 'Pathlight' the first edition of a literary magazine of new Chinese Writing which I am looking forward to reading.

London Book Fair. Event 2

The second event I attended also took place in the English Pen Literary Cafe: Bi Feiyu interviewed (via translator) by Rosie Goldsmith.

Like Jung Chang, Bi Feiyu also thinks that it is important that China does not forget its recent past. His book, Three Sisters, is an exploration of family and rural life during the Cultural Revolution, and won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2010. He was interviewed by Rosie Goldsmith - and very entertaining it was too!

Rosie Goldsmith pointed out that he showed an extraordinary psychological empathy to women, and the book contains a lot of explicitly described sex. Bi Feiyu explained that during the Cultural Revolution, sex was considered shameful, so that being able to describe it now is a sign of comparative liberalisation. He said that although sex may appear to be controlled on the surface that deep down there are 'storms going on'. He said sex was important to the book, and he made sure it was in there from beginning to end. The Chinese are more liberated now than the British (at which Rosie Goldsmith said that she was now very interested in Chinese modern literature!).

He talked a little about co-writing his book for screen, and admitted that a lot of his work had been removed with the script-editor's red pen.

It was seven years before his book was translated into English, and he couldn't really decide which of his other nine novels he would most like to be translated, replying simply 'all of them'. He then spoke of his 2008 novel, Chinese Massage, which deals with the blind community in China. This section of society has been neglected, although altogether the population of blind people in China is as great as a medium-sized European country.

He said that although all writers work under restraint in China, each writer also has the freedom to express what they think in their own way. To illustrate this he used a metaphor of a twelve year old boy falling in love with a girl. His class-mates may not agree, but as long as the boy has passion, he will find a way to express it.

When asked how he felt about the controversy of the London Book Fair inviting just writers approved by the Chinese government (he is one of the 21 invited), he replied that controversy is always good - and that he intended to come back to England even if the reception to his book was not positive.

London Book Fair. Event 1.

The first event I managed to see was the author Jung Chang being interviewed by Gillian Slovo for English Pen.

Jung Chang's family biography, Wild Swans (my review is here), has sold more than 13.5 million copies, but probably many more people have read it since it has been scanned and put on the internet for readers in China, where it is banned. It is a piracy that has its author's blessing. Jung Chang wants, above all, to have her work read.

Jung Chang's second book was also controversial: a biography of Chairman Mao, Mao: The Unknown Story, which was co-written by Jon Halliday. The research was conducted in the 1990s when there was a window of openness. Such research would not be permitted today. This biography was banned very strictly, and partly as a result of this, the Wild Swans memoir was banned, but not quite as strictly.

Jung Chang talked about the necessity of writing with an 'invisible pen' when she was exiled to the Himalayas during the Cultural Revolution - although she didn't have a chance to physically write she was writing it in her head. When she did, the process of writing the book brought her closer to her mother, and her mother said that even if the book did not prove to be a success it had served its purpose in this way.

She said that the Mao myth is perpetuated today in modern China. He caused the death of millions of people, and without Mao she proposed that China would today be like Taiwan. She says that even today writers write from inside a strait jacket.

Gillian Slovo suggested that maybe living under repression could cause great literature to flower, but Chung Jang said no - in fact it suppresses creativity. She likened the repression to magma under a dormant volcano. There is trauma there, but it is suppressed. A mention of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution can cause even the most controlled high-ranking bureaucrat to become agitated. Dreadful things happened, but writing about such things is discouraged.

Jung Chang's current project should prove less controversial - it is a biography of the Empress Dowager who was responsible for bring China into the twentieth century. It sounds like it will be another very good read!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The London Book Fair.

Since China is the featured market at the London Book Fair, I have decided to visit it tomorrow. It is the first time I have visited the fair and I am a little apprehensive. I think I am going to have the same feeling I get when looking at the stars, or the lights of a large city when I approach it from the air: an uncomfortable awareness of my insignificance.

The good thing is my hotel is quite close to Kew Gardens so I can always go there if it all proves too much. Nature is always a good tonic.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

From Herms to Hermès

Debra Hamel's The Mutilation of the Herms has recently come out in paperback. Before reading this book I had never come across the term 'Herms' before. To me, the name Hermès was associated with French silk scarves, but I was wondering if I could find a connection as a kind of thought experiment.

Looking at the suitably elaborately-designed Hermès website I discovered that there is a 'Prix Emile Hermès' prize for young designers. In 2011 the theme was 'Heat, Me-Heat, Re-Heat' and on the website there is a page demonstrating the winners. It's worth a look. Several of these were small cuboid structures, so in overall appearance (if not design or function) there was indeed a connection between the Herms and the Hermès. The Hermès designs were for ecological stoves and other heating devices; whereas the the Herms of ancient Greece were territorial markers - but these too were destined to raise a few temperatures.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Welsh Colonisation of Patagonia: a Volcanic Connection.

What caused the Welsh emigrate to Patagonia? When I was researching my last novel, I found it satisfying to be able to trace back the origins of this aspiration to something physical rather than political - 'an act of God' as the settlers no doubt would have it. I was reminded of this particular natural catastrophe when I read David Bressan's article in the Scientific American just now. The event is the eruption of the volcano Tambora in 1815.

This was the most powerful volcanic explosion in recorded history, and the ash was carried so far into the atmosphere that it screened the earth from the warmth of the sun. The next year, 1816, was so cold that it was known as the year without a summer. For several years crops failed and food became expensive. The poor became poorer, a situation exacerbated by the potato blight a few decades later. Everyone suffered, but the Welsh soon had special grievances in the form of English taxes imposed by English land lords and English clergy. There were numerous waves of protests, and Karl Marx noted that the Welsh were ripe for rebellion.

The final trigger, though, came from a school inspection and the conclusion that the Welsh language was not fit for modern life. It caused the disquiet to grow, and from north Wales came the first murmurings of a radical proposal: why not go somewhere so remote the English would not have a chance to interfere?

The land they were about to inhabit would owe its existence to volcanoes too. The soils of the Chubut valley have been made fertile (in part) by the pale tuffs of old volcanic explosions swept to the valley by the prevailing wind from the Andes. And their final settlement, Esquel, is still periodically threatened by volcanic ashes. The last time was just last year when the Puehue-Cordon Caulle volcanic complex erupted in Chile.

So one volcanic explosion indirectly caused the Welsh to flee into the path of another. The events are separated by many years, but it interests me how geology and the fate of this population of people are connected.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Rocky Road Easter Egg.

Hodmandod Major and Majorette have come home for Easter with a Rocky Road Easter Egg; they tried to find one for Hodmandod Minor but the shop had run out, so I, with a little assistance from Majorette, have devised one of our own. I'm hoping it tastes a little better than it looks.

It is composed of an Easter egg coated with a mixture of marshmallows, digestive biscuits and bits of chopped up caramel-filled mini Easter eggs...and chocolate.

Obviously, someone had to eat the leftovers - a tough call but someone had to do it (this turned out to be me).

Thursday, April 05, 2012

What I'm doing:38

What I'm listening to:

Fagiolini's "Love Is A Babe". This is from an album of Shakespeare's sonnets which have been transformed into modern songs, and features the work of Robert Hollingsworth and there is also a link on this page to Cara Dillon singing 'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day'.

When I was a child I used to love listening to Cleo Lane and Johnny Dankworth singing 'Shakespeare and all that jazz'. The duo had set various extracts from Shakespeare to jazz, and these became so familiar to me that whenever I hear a familiar line in a play, I feel like singing along. They are the few extracts from Shakespeare that I know. I have often thought that more quotes should be set to music. Songs are so much easier to remember than poems.

The album is coming out on April 23rd, Shakespeare's birthday and is part of the queen's jubilee celebration. There is a little more about it here.

What I watched last:

Ghosts: a film directed by Nick Broomfield for Channel 4 in 2006.

This is a fictionalisation of a tragic event that happened in Morecambe Bay in 2004. A young Chinese girl, who happens to come from the same province of China as Da Chen, pays $25,000 to be smuggled into the UK to work as an illegal immigrant. Incredibly, she travels overland in buses, lorries and, eventually, entombed in a sealed container to cross the English Channel. The journey takes 6 months. It must be gruelling. The life she finds awaiting her is unpleasant. The conditions are crowded and the work is hard. There are English sharks and Chinese sharks ensuring that the money she makes is minimal. Eventually she arrives in Morecambe Bay, and their team of pickers is forced by locals (called 'Ghosts' - a Chinese term for white people) to try and collect the cockles at night. Twenty three people are drowned when the tide comes in. The film was part of a successful campaign to raise money for the relatives of these victims to cover their unpaid debts.

It made a gripping, if harrowing, story, and I was struck by the contrasts in fortune between this poverty stricken farmer who aimed to make money by working hard, but also cheating to get into the West, and Da Chen who was equally poor, but managed to reach the United States through working equally hard but taking a more conventional route.

What I'm Reading (on my Kindle):

Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. Essential background to my reading of China in the 1960s, and especially suitable for my Little Red Kindle.

What I'm Reading (on the page):
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and seeing, at last, what all the fuss was about.
What I'm Listening to (on audiobook):

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (having just finished the wonderful

Book Thief by Markus Zusak and narrated by the excellent Allan Corduner - a superb production).

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Colour of the Mountain by Da Chen

I heard Simon Brett give a talk recently. He said that comedy has its roots in tragedy, and I think one of the most tragic events in the last fifty years must have taken place in China during Mao's Great Leap Forward. The memoirs I have read so far reflect this tragedy and are understandably miserable. They are also written by women. Colours of the Mountain is written by Chen Da, a man. He proves himself to be a robust and extraordinary human being and he tells his story with the wit of Mark Twain .

As the grandson of a landlord he and his family are forced to live under a stigma. His grandfather is not welcome on public places and has to write a daily diary of his activities. In consequence he becomes nocturnal. Da's father is forced to go to labour camp and the rest of the family subjected to name-calling and discrimination. Da's older siblings are forced to leave school early and work in the fields. They come to accept this as their future. Da himself is forced to a series of humiliations at school, and eventually becomes so disenchated that he falls in with a quartet of slightly older hooligans. They have the fabled honour of outlaws, and through them Da finds a way of coping and establishing himself in the society of the Mao's Cultural Revolution. By this time teachers and learning are generally despised and all that is being taught is Mao's politics and philosophy.

After Mao's death everything is turned around again and learning is in vogue. Da and his elder brother crib for the entrance exams to university and are ultimately successful. It is a triumphant tale. His sisters, however, are left tending to the commune farm, and although Da and his bother are grateful for their efforts in providing for the two male scholars this aspect of the story did seem unfair to my Western mind.

It is a classic rages to riches story, telling much of interest along the way; its great strength coming from the humour of the writing and the indefatigable nature and humanity of the writer.