Friday, June 29, 2012

The Usefulness of an Emergency Book Cache.

This afternoon, having decided I needed to pop out to the shops, I decided to not bother with my phone, made sure the back door was locked and slammed shut the front door...realising as I did so that I had just locked myself out. Since the local phone boxes were (predictably) not working I walked slowly around the shops, and then slowly drank some tea in the supermarket cafe.

Unable to draw this out any longer I arrived back at home still with a couple of hours to kill before the arrival of Hodmandod Senior and it was at this point that I realised I could get into my shed and, more importantly, my emergency book cache.

A couple of years ago I decided to collect all the Booker winners - most of which I have read - but a few remain outstanding....and so it was I alighted upon Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The first couple of sentences run on through several characters without introduction, which I found perplexing, but I persevered and in doing so realised it was part of a joke, a way of dragging the reader into gossip, which I thought very witty.

When Hodmandod Senior arrived I was still engrossed, but then returned to the book I was reading before I left - the extraordinary Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough...which ironically enough is all about memory.

The moral of this story is always keep a cache of book to hand in your shed in case of emergencies.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Authors North Summer Social 2012

This year's Authors North Social was in Bradford at the Media Museum - which has magnificent views of what was once a thriving northern town.

Bradford Vista

After an introductory talk by Paul Goodman we were free to wander around their collection of exhibits on television, radio and film, collecting together again

Photo by Pam Grant

for lunch and in readiness for

Audience with Sarah Burton from SoA, and our former secretary, left.

the star attraction - Joanne Harris!

Colin Shelbourn (committee member) with Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris gave us an entertaining talk about her life as a writer: her motivations (following her own inclinations, rather than chasing anyone else's idea of what a reader wants); her resistance to becoming a 'brand' (which has resulted in her writing novels in many different genres e.g. historical gothic and crime/thriller); and the importance of her 'designated space' (her shed - which assumes a different personality each day). She also spoke of the 'fabulous business' of being a writer and how little marks of paper are like a form of voodoo if they reach the right people.

We also heard about the genesis of her latest novel, Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure. It is a follow-on from Chocolat and an exploration of what happens to the French village when a community of Muslims take up residence. One of our members had manged to read it already and vouched for its excellence so I am looking forward to reading that in the very near future.

A lively question and answer session followed, and we all went on our merry ways encountering along the way some unusual Saturday people

accosting tourists

(who didn't seem to mind)

with such enthusiasm

they had apparently forgotten the main man...

Another memorable day for Authors North! Thanks very much to Lisa Dowdeswell for organising it.

Audience with Lisa Dowdeswell (turning round 2nd left, third row) and John Rice (end of second row in striped shirt)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Midsummer Night Solstice Event at Frodsham

Last night, I walked down sodden gravel paths

past dripping giants,

stately buildings,

lawns turned to marshes

to a glasshouse in a park

with Chester Writers.

It was quiet, except for the rain on the roof and the writers reading out their words, but from time to time a child flitted past in the drenched clothes of a nymph - an apparition from a dream of summer.

Many thanks to the people who read out and those that turned out on such a night to support us.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Bookish Indulgence.

It is out-of-date. The ideas inside are outmoded and discredited...

I know this, but it is still hugely interesting to read this forty year old archaeological book. There are fold-out plans, diagrams and 32 plates of objects I've never seen before...from the masterful

and incredible

to the grotesque

and the functional.

...all featuring Sir Mortimer Wheeler's imagination... and feeding mine.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Ancient Indus by Rita P. Wright

Considering the apparent depth of human misery in parts of Afganistan and Pakistan at the moment, it seems a little trite to also point out that this area is the site of some of the most interesting and early cities. Rita P Wright is the sort of courageous archaeologist who has spent her career uncovering this still-mysterious area of the earth, and this book, The Ancient Indus, published in 2010 by Cambridge University Press, presents some of the latest findings.

The first chapter deals with the history of the discovery which started when a deserter from the British East India Company, who went under the alien of Charles Masson, discovered a mound adjacent to the city of Harappa as he journeyed through the Punjab on horseback in 1829. The importance of the site only really came to the attention of the western world when article in the London Illustrated news by John Marshall declared the great age of the site comparing it with the hey-days of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Mortimer Wheeler later took an interest in the place, and wrote an influential book called the Indus Empire in 1966 (which I've ordered), but some of his ideas, for instance that the cities died out due to being overrun by Aryan invaders from the north, are now mostly dismissed. The cities seemed to be unusual in that they seem to be unprepared for war. Although raised above the flood plains and divided by walls these seem to be for segregation rather than defence.

The second chapter considers the modern ideas explaining the collapse of the civilisation, which started around 1900BC. The Monsoon shifted, as did the course of the rivers. Earthquakestoo could have an an effect, as could the silting up the rivers and the coastline extending south.

In the third chapter I learnt about the evidence of the start of farming in the area: specifically in Mehrgarh, a particularly impoverished and underdeveloped area of Pakistan, a mountainous region, just to the west of the valley. Some crops and animals were thought to be locally domesticated, while others were thought to be imported from the middle east. By 4,500BC domestication of both animals and crops was widespread.

There was an interesting section considering a particular site in Mehrgarh which described some aspects of the the life of a community living there from 7,000-2,500BC, and the changes as the settlement became larger and more urban. The average life expectancy seemed to go down, judging from the ages of the bodies exhumed from the cemeteries, and the birth rate went up. Pots became more sophisticated, some of them thrown onto a wheel and decorated with gazelles, and the oxygen and temperature of the kilns controlled to change the colour of the clay. But the best artwork seemed to come from the early part of their history. In the first era, 7,000- 4,000BC, the figurines are symbolic and strikingly beautiful.

Chapter 4 describes the rise of the city: the migration to the plains, the establishment of small villages and then the planning and the establishment of the cities. The earlier technologies of the people in Mehrgarh are developed and new ones added. The enlargement of the communities allow people to become specialised, and a hierarchy is developed with communities of 'crafters' established in 'industrial' locations. There is a cubical weight system, the bricks are standardised and an early form of script is marked on pottery.

Chapter 5 introduced me to the specific wonders of the five main individual Indus cities. Although they interacted and were based on the same culture, each one had their own individual characteristics. Mohenjo-daro, for instance, was the largest, but also short-lived. It was established quickly over just a few years on a raised platforms built above the plain, and had a sophisticated plumbing system of drain, cess-pits, baths and vertical shafts for wells, and a system of parallel roads.

Harappa, in contrast, still exists today, and although no great bath has been discovered as in Mohenjo-daro there is an unexplained large building of many small rooms which can only be described in terms of what it is not: not a granary, nor a barracks, nor a temple...

The cities are thought to have been similar in concept to the city-states of Ancient Greece in that they each controlled a a network of smaller towns and villages which were mutually dependent in terms of the supply of raw materials and goods.

In addition to the Indus valley proper there were also empire outposts and gateways. For instance, in northern Afghanistan 500km away, there was a small settlement called Shortugai, thought to be established by Harappan people to take advantage of the supply of lapis lazuli. It seems to have been a Harappa city in miniature.

Chapter 6 is an in depth look at the Harappan crafts. I read about carnelian beads that took a fortnight to produce, miniature steatite beads glazed with sand lime and clay and stoneware bangles which were restricted to the cities since their method of production was incredibly sophisticated and involved clay purification, a potter's wheel and then such careful control of a kiln that the product has a shiny metallic lustre and has the properties of glass.

Trade was another important aspect of Harappan life, and during their Urban phase (2,600 - 1,900 BC) the Harappans had important links with Mesopotamia and the Arabian peninsular. Chapter 7 describes aspects of this: the use of seals as identification of goods, the system of weights made from the same chert to establish uniformity, the use of shells, precious metals, and semi-precious stones and the idea that some of the articles made could serve as 'monies' for use in trade. One idea I found exciting was that in Mesopotamia there were Harappan emigres who served as 'tongue exchangers' and there is therefore the prospect that one day a tablet containing both Sumerian and Harappan script might be found, and so the language and writing of Harappa with its 400 signs might be interpreted.

Chapter 8 considers more aspects of the Harappan contact with distant places, which leads to chapter 9's consideration of the administration and social organisation of a Harappan city. There is evidence of a privileged society sporting carnelian beads instead of terracotta, copper bowls instead of pot, and a hierarchy of elite merchants, specialist traders, family groups and individuals and possibly state institutions - segregated by walls and spaces and proximity to cess pit. Houses had bathing platforms, toilets,wells, refuse disposal systems. In some ways the living conditions of the cities of Harappa seem to surpass the conditions of some parts of Pakiatan today.

Chapter 10 is an assessment of what is known or postulated about the Harappan religion. Some people have looked at it in comparison with the history of modern religions of the area; while others have compared it with other religions of the time. It ends with a detailed examination of Harappan seals and imagery and involves processions of worshipers wearing horned headresses, priests or shamans, and deities which have animal and human characteristics.

In chapter 11 there is an assessment of the evidence for the decline of the empire and its causes, as well as a description of the changes in lifestyle as life became more difficult. As in Greece after the Mycenae, there was a dark age. People forgot how to write because the contraction of trade meant there was no longer any need. Some cities were abandoned altogether, while some became overpopulated in some parts and abandoned others. Eventually the elite left for the Ganges basin where conditions had become more amenable.

Overall, a very interesting book with a lot of fascinating information, although it is an academic one written for undergraduates, and therefore uses the vocabulary and sentence structure of the social sciences textbook.

I bought this book from Amazon - a worthwhile purchase.

I have a pinpage devoted to the images here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Three Books

Today, three books arrived all at once:

The Ancient Indus by Rita Wright (ordered from Amazon) which I hope will cover my latest obsession (if you want to see why look at the images on the stunning Harappa website).

The second, Great Stories of all Nations (selected by Maxim Lieber and Blanche Colton Williams), I ordered from Abebooks after a friend of mine, Irene, told me about her copy which she had inherited from her grandfather. It sounded so interesting that I immediately wanted a copy of my own - and luckily found one for 65 pence from a bookseller in East Sussex. It was published in 1927.

The last was a surprise from Profile books: Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough. This piques my interest for two reasons. First, because it is about memory - a subject that has fascinated me ever since I read Douwe Draaisma's collection of essays Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older - and second because it is 'a blend of science and literature' which I generally find irresistible. Thank you Profile books!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Petrona's Links

Every month Petrona gives a well-considered list of links to sites that have caught her eye. I always find a little gem through this. So today I thought I would just link to Petrona's links since this month's is a particularly varied and interesting listing.

Saturday, June 09, 2012


I would just like to welcome The Black Death by Robert S Gottfried to the Hodmandod SickLit collection.

So far, I have read just four of these: Deadly Companions and The Invisible Enemy by Dorothy Crawford, The Family that Couldn't Sleep by D.T. Max (all fascinating) and Six Modern Plagues by Mark Jerome Walters, the last of which enthralled me so much that I started a HantavirusLit sub-collection. This, like its mother-collection, is ongoing.

I have just supplemented it with a couple of free books by Daniel Defoe: The History of the Plague in London * and A Journal of the Plague Year, written by a citizen who continued all the while in London * and also The Black Death The Dancing Mania by Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker on my Kindle.

*Added later: once I'd downloaded them I found that these two were, in fact, the same book (they cost me nothing, though, so it didn't matter).

Friday, June 08, 2012

Barry Unsworth 1930-2012

This week has been one of loss: Ray Bradbury, a friend's father and now the Booker-winning writer Barry Unsworth.

He came to Liverpool in 2004 and gave a talk at the Maritime Museum during which he read a passage from Sacred Hunger to a small but transfixed audience. Hearing him read out a passage made me appreciate his writing even more. He was a thoroughly charming man and a great writer.

There is an excellent obituary in the New York Times. It ends with a quote from Barry Unsworth made two years after Margaret Thatcher left office about his book Sacred Hunger:
'As I wrote I began to see more strongly that there were inescapable analogies. You couldn’t really live through the ’80s without feeling how crass and distasteful some of the economic doctrines were. The slave trade is a perfect model for that kind of total devotion to the profit motive without reckoning the human consequences'
A perfect example of the motivation to write historical fiction - using the past to say something fresh and profound about the present.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Ray Bradbury 1920- 2012

For me, the desire to become a writer came in a series of waves. There was the initial ripple when a poem I wrote was put on the wall, and the pride I felt, but more importantly the feeling I got just before, the joy of stringing together words and the effect they had on me.

Many similar wavelets followed, but there was one that was larger than the rest. It was in the English class (of the appropriately named Mr Wright) and together we read one of Ray Bradbury's stories. I think it was called 'A Sound of Thunder'. It was about a group of time-travelling hunters who went back in time to hunt the ultimate 'big game' - specially selected dinosaurs. The hunters hovered on a pathway above the vegetation because it was important not to touch anything so as not to change anything in the past. The dinosaurs were specially selected because they were known to about to die anyway from their fossil record.

The hunt goes ahead, and what happened during that I don't remember because the important point of the story is what one of the hunters found underneath his shoe on the journey back to the future. It was a butterfly - and the destruction of that had changed everything.

Unfortunately, the bell for the end of lessons before we'd finished which meant we were supposed to close the book and go, but I couldn't. I sneakily hung behind trying to read it to the end and of course Mr Wright spotted me and laughed: an early indication of addiction.

After that I was hooked on Ray Bradbury. I went to the library and borrowed everything I could find. It is because of Ray Bradbury that I became addicted to the row of yellow Gollancz science fiction books on the library wall and then, eventually, the start of a career in science. But it was the writing I loved best, and the poetry of ideas. When I read The Martian Chronicles again much later I was still entranced by them. The science of Ray Bradbury's science fiction was relatively unimportant, I realised then. It was used mainly as a platform for flight, and writing that soared above everything in the most fantastic way I could imagine.

Ray Bradbury died on June 5th, a grand old man of 91, and Joanne Harris has written an appreciation of the man and his works - and the time she met him - just here.

Monday, June 04, 2012

The British Jubilee Feast

The nation is celebrating the queen's 60 years on the throne - and the supermarkets have used this as an excuse to market British food. Since these are convenient items to pack into a cool bag and turn out onto plates I took them to my mother's house for a light lunch so she didn't have to bother.

So out came the little pieces of fat and processed meat:
the sausage rolls,

the ham and pineapple on sticks, the tomatoes and cubes of cheddar cheese,

pork pies,

the mini sausages and

scotch eggs and chicken drumsticks...

and my father was in junk food heaven.

And then, for 'afters':
swiss rolls (in red white and blue), French fancies,

Maryland cookies with candy-coated chocolate chips and Battenburg cake.

As I put them out I noticed that each one of these British foods is named after some foreign place - which made me wonder if the Swiss prefer their cakes in a roll, or the Marylanders insist on cookies defined by their chocolate chips, or the Germans are susceptible to a square of marzipanned and coloured sponge cake. After a little in-depth research I can report that the cubes of sponge with white blob of 'cream' and lividly coloured icing is the result of Mr Kipling's fancy rather than an French one because Hodmandod Majorette assured me that she had never heard or seen such things for sale in France.

Poor Hodmandod Majorette! To think she has swapped all the delights of French cuisine for this...but the valiant girl assured me she liked it too and ate it all with as much relish as the rest of us.