Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Black Death

Just lining up a little light reading for Easter...

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My Monstrous Book... now 579 pages and 160,000 words long.  No matter how much I write there always seems to be eight more chapters to go.  Or is that nine...?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Towards Wales

I have often thought there can be a melancholy beauty in industrial landscapes.

This is the river Dee west of Chester looking west towards Wales.

The Dee was canalised along this stretch  in the nineteenth century when it served as Chester's port.  We walked over a footbridge from the north bank  to an area called Saltney Ferry on the south.  Saltney Ferry is an interesting place because it used to be the terminus of a canal and also a junction of railways.  I imagine it used to be a bustling place, but now there are just a couple of boarded up chapels and a couple of rows of Victorian terraced houses surrounded by fields.

American Silk by Jacqueline Field, Marjorie Senechal and Madelyn Shaw.

I bought this book a few years ago, but only over the last few days managed to get round to reading it.  I wasn't particularly certain I really needed to read it, but now I'm pretty glad I did.  It is a series of three cases studies about the growth and ultimate decline of slk manufacturing in the United States.  I realise this might not sound a particularly scintillating topic, but to me it is.  There was the best description of the process of silkworm to silk cloth by Marjorie Senechal that I've ever read.  Many times I have read about this and I don't think I've ever readan account that is quite as clear and succinct.

Senechal goes on to describe how silk was first introduced to the Americas.  James I (of England) loved silk and silkworms, and he tried very hard to get the colonists in Jamestown to cultivate it.  He sent them his own personal silkworm eggs, ensured each family had a booklet on how to go about silkworm husbandry, and even tried to bribe them into concentrating on the crop, but each time tobacco won out.

The book then moves on then a couple of centuries to the mid-nineteenth century and  Northampton, Massachusetts, and it is here that things get really interesting.  A man called Samuel Windmarsh shares James's enthusiasm for the industry and succeeds in provoking a sort of silk fever throughout the region.  When this eventually leads to failure a group of abolitionists establish their own commune on the site.  It lasted for just four years, but it started with inspiring ideals.  Everyone was equal.  They lived, ate and worked communally, and that work was silk and attracted some famous people to the colony including Sojourner Truth.  They fed and raised the silkworms, reeled, twisted and doubled their silk, and then sent it on to market.  There is more information about the Northampton Association of Education  and Industry in a hugely impressive website.  I spent hours there this weekend working out the site of the mill, and working out what still remains - before coming on a fascinating video tour of the area.

But the Institution finally failed, and when it did, one of the instigators, William Hill, who seemed to be an incredibly principled man, took on all their debts and worked for five years to repay them.  This impressed a local industrialist so much that he was taken on as manager at another silk factory.  This one used steam to process the silk and this was successful thanks to the involvement of Isaac Singer.  Singer used to be to sewing machines as Hoovers used to be to vacuum cleaning - and silk was essential to the initial success to Singer sewing machines because it was the only thread strong enough to take the machine's tension.  Isaac Singer himself is a very interesting character.  As Senechal points out, he had families to support, and a quick visit to Wikipedia reveals that he was t an incorrigible polygamist.

The other two sections - by Jacqueline Field and Madelyn Shaw - are interesting too.  The second section concerns a silk mill in Maine and the third continues the silk story into the twentieth century with the story H R Mallinson and Company.  They were manufacturers based in New York who deliberately targeted an upmarket clientele.  H R Mallinson and Company were among the first to establish branding and catch phrases and advertised widely - using a wide range media to establish their product as something of quality and desirability.  For years their share of the market grew - until the Depression of 1930 brought it crashing down.  The demise seems to have been swift and absolute.  American silk manufacturing seems to have made little recovery since.

Monday, March 11, 2013

How Literature Changes Lives - and my life

Part of the Beacons evening included a discussion on how Literature can change lives and in order to prepare for this I quickly made some notes - and since I don't know what else to do with them I thought I might as well publish them here.  

1.  All writers must have had their lives changed by literature.  They must have been so impressed by it at one stage that they want to devote their lives to producing more of it.

2. Children's fiction - perhaps the most powerful influence.
The first set of books I remember loving were Narnian books by C.S. Lewis.  I read them until they fell apart. 
Other notable books were the Borrowers by Andre Norton, which I would love to say made me more careful about what I threw away, but didn't, Rosemary Sutcliffe novels particularly Eagle of the Ninth, which I guess influenced me because I came to be interested in history,  a Japanese book called Sadako and a Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr about a child suffering from radiation sickness after the bomb in Hiroshima which really woke me up to the atrocities of war and a general sympathy with the anti bomb movement, and then a series of books on The Tripods by John Christopher- one of the first science fiction books I read. Many more were to follow.

3. Spiritual influence
I suppose the Narnia books were intended to be spiritual ones - but to be honest they didn't have a spiritual effect on me. However, I am sure that some people are spiritually inspired by books .e.g. I was reading a non-fiction book called Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar recently, and in that he said a novel written by a mystic The Book of Strangers by Abdu Qadir who was a Muslim convert formerly known as Ian Dallas,  drew Sardar  to exploring a form of Sufi Islam.   So a big inspiration for him.

Of course the ultimate example of a book changing lives are the Bible and Qur'an and the Budhhist Sutras.  These have all changed countless lives.  In fact changed the world.  Are these literature?  I would certainly say that some of it is.

4.  Political effects.

Political books can also change lives: Mao's The Red Book of Guerilla Warfare is still and important item in China and for a time replaced religion.  Similarly Karl Marx's Das Capital, or the theory of various thinkers in Economics e.g. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes have had big influences on people in government and so have changed lives.  The same applies to philosophical works.  For instance, the works of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers written down by their students have changed the world - and again, although not novels might be regarded as literature. 

5.  Scientific
The first adult book that I wrote was  inspired by a book - but  was not literature Arthur Holmes Principles of Physical Geology - I learnt about Continental Drift which inspired my Wegener book.

Scientific books can be powerful - just as powerful as any others because the ideas are concrete: Charles Darwin's Origin of Species must have changed many lives, and he in turn was changed by Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population.  I have heard that many Nobel Scientists of the twentieth century were inspired by a book called the Microbe Hunters  by Paul de Kruif which described the lives of scientists such as Pasteur.  This undoubtedly changed the way their lives were going and felt inspired to do science.  Some of these are so well written, I think they could be called literature.  Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is often quoted as the book that started a lot of people thinking about what we are doing to our environment. 

6.  Pyschology books have inspired my life to a large extent.  Oliver Sachs' books on the brain The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and a less well-known book The boy who was raised as a dog by Bruce Perry, as well as various books on memory such as Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough and Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older by Duowe Draaisma have all caused me to change my thinking.  And again are literature in their own way...

7.  Similarly, anthropological books like Don't Sleep there are snakes by Daniel Everett about a missionary linguist living with a tribe of Amazonian Indians who do not have words for times further away than a month, or numbers greater than 10 made me question how I see the world and inspired me.

8.  History books are also a great source of inspiration.  It can be our only key to the past.  Reading memoirs and witness accounts of a time can inspire a desire to investigate and write about them.  It again helps to think about things differently - which makes life interesting.  For example my Hoffmann novel was inspired by history books  as well as literature (in particular Struwwelpeter - a  book of cautionary tales for children from an early psychiatrist). 

9.  Literature.  If I look at my bookshelves I would say virtually every book that I have read has inspired me to some degree.  Sometimes it is the beauty of the writing.  e.g Beloved by Toni Morrison.  God of Small Things by Anjurati Roy.

10.  Often it is the form e.g The first story in Hotel World by Ali Smith which was written from the point of view of a ghost.  Or Martin Amis's John Self in Money - a greedy capitalist.  Or The Incident of the Dog in the Night time  - an autistic child or even Carol Shields' Happenstance - looking at a story from the husband's and the wife's point of view - depending on which way up you hold the book.  Or Angela Carter's viewpoint which always seems other-worldly to me. And then there was Ray Bradbury's Science Fiction.  I loved this - he would take an incredible scenario and make it convincing.    All these encouraged me to be more adventurous with my writing.  I went through a phase of reading every yellow Gollancz book on the shelf in my local library.  They were of varying literary value, I suppose but they made me think - and so, to a small degree they changed my life. 

Rodge Glass, me, Gregory Norminton and Cathy Bolton at the launch of Beacons: photo by Emma Norminton

11.  Then there is the plot.  Sometimes the story - the twists and turns inspire, shock and amuse.  e.g. Joanne Harris's Gentlemen Players  and Gregory's Serious Things - but virtually every good thriller and crime fiction book that I've come across. 

12. Then there is the setting that inspires.  Sometimes so strong is part of the story: as in Rodge's story We're all Gonna have the Blues.  To some extent the setting can be as inspiring as any character.  It is something to pitch against.  Particularly important in books about the environment - like McCarthy's Road.  Another example was Jim Crace's Quarantine: another inspiring book. 

 13.  Then, finally, there is character.  It is character that I find most inspiring in a book.  A good strong character can inhabit my mind for long after I've read it, and I have read so many I'd find it difficult to name just one, but one of my neighbours has a child called Rebecca: a name chosen just after the mother had just finished a certain book by Daphne Du Maurier she told me once.  It may not have changed the world, but it certainly changed one person's life.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Launch of Beacons

There is a menace in Rodge Glass's story 'We're All Gonna Have the Blues,' it builds and builds like the rising tide against a dam and features a couple of tremendous characters (Jaro and his 'babysitter') who are both futuristic and believable.  It was, he says, inspired by an interview with a politician who lived in his street.  In order to convince it is necessary to sympathise with what people want, and 'We're all going to get the blues' is about how we might attempt to persuade people to change. It is a dramatic piece and I was gripped to the end.

Rodge Glass (left) was one of the readers in the launch of Beacons. The editor, Gregory Norminton (right), was the other.  Gregory read from his story 'Almost Visible Cities'.  It is a visionary piece featuring Marco Polo meeting the Great Khan in the future and explores variations on the theme of possible cities (some recognisable in analogy).  It evoked the spirit of Calvino and includes some of Gregory's trademark poetic writing.  'The Great Khan let out a sigh such as a tomb might make when it is opened after countless years of silence...' Gorgeous stuff.

The launch took place in the Anthony Burgess Institute: an interesting venue in an old mill - now featuring furniture that used to belong to Anthony Burgess: dark, oaken and very old.

We were very ably introduced by Cathy Bolton (in the middle, above) from the Manchester Literature Festival who also helped chair the discussion, and supported by the writing school at MMU, the Manchester Literature Festival and Steady State Manchester...

Thursday, March 07, 2013

At last: the launch of Beacons!

Today is the official launch date of Beacons

and tonight, at 7.30pm Gregory Norminton, Rodge Glass and I are going to give readings and discuss how literature can inspire and change people's lives in the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. Cathy Bolton of the Manchester Literature Festival will chair.