Thursday, August 31, 2006


Douglas of Crossword Bebop is the worthy winner of Debra Hamel's Haiku competition on Book Blog. I have congratulated him in the only way appropriate, I feel...

Douglas, king of the crossword
and now the haiku.

In other news I discovered in this morning's post that my two offerings of short stories have been deemed unsuitable for inclusion in the Anthology of Chester which is disappointing, and my specimen has not been accepted for inclusion in the Field Guide to Surreal Botany (though not really surprised about this one since it was much too long).

So it has not been a particularly splendid twelve hours.

However I am really pleased that I submitted something for the botanical guide because it made me think of an idea which has been haunting me ever since - a fantasy for children. It is more than ten years since I wrote something like this, so perhaps it is time I tried my hand again. All I've been writing recently is this blog - no fiction at all and I'm beginning to feel edgy - like some who has missed her fix.

Science Triumphs and a Science Tragedy.

The triumphs...

There were three pieces of good news in Reuters this morning (I tried linking them but they wouldn't work - I think the addresses are too long):

(i) the state of California in the US is set to become a world leader in reducing carbon emissions which will put pressure on the rest of the world to do the same.

"The success of our system will be an example for other states and nations to follow as the fight against climate change continues," the governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said.

I expect I am being naive, but this sounds extremely positive to me.

(ii) the ozone layer is recovering and should be completely intact again by the middle of the century. Hodmandod Senior has had a small hand in this, I think. Part of his work over the years as a research chemist has been to find an alternative to chlorofluorocarbon solvents for dry cleaning - as these were one of the culprits thought to be involved in causing the hole in the first place. This, I hope will mean there will be fewer deaths from skin cancer, especially in the southern hemisphere where the hole is larger.

(iii) implanting electrodes into the brains of people with Parkinsons has alleviated symptoms of some Parkinson's patients. However reading into this a little more I see that half of the authors (including the lead author) of the report (published in New England Journal of Medicine) have some financial connection with the company that provides the therapy, which I guess may, but not necessarily, influence results, especially if the results involve a subjective aspect - which I think this one must.

There was a 25% improvement in symptoms, the surgery cost $50 000- $60 000, and one person died due to surgical complications, while another died due to suicide. Another person in the study, a patient in a comparative group taking just the drugs died because he had a psychotic episode while driving a car.

Another possible cure for Parkinsons might come, one day, from stem cell therapy, but this is something still in its infancy and will not be available for many years, if it comes at all.

...and the tragedy.

Last year I started investigating stem cell therapy for a writing project I had in mind, but I didn't get the grant and so I had to abandon it. However I saw my proposed collaborator, an expert in stem cell therapy, on the BBC website yesterday in a dismal report from BBC newsnight . As I understand it there are not yet any established therapies involving stem cells but even so a South African businessman and his ex-model lover have succeeded in duping some vulnerable and desperate people of thousands of pounds for a bogus stem cell therapy. Their middle-man was a Dutch doctor who injected stem cells (which had been harvested for research purposes)into patients who had travelled from the UK and Australia to his clinic in the Netherlands. One was a woman with multiple schlerosis, and the other was a child who was suffering from the complications of having meningitis.

They were hoping for miracle-cures. They trusted the doctor - that is what we all tend to do, after all - but there are charlatans even within the medical profession. Injecting stem cells in this way - just shoving them under the skin and hoping for the best - is not likely to have any beneficial effect whatsoever according to one expert oon the programme. In fact it can do harm. When the company that harvested the stem cells heard about what was happening to the cells that they had described as 'unsuitable for use on animals' heard what was happening their first question was - has anyone died yet? The child did suffer a severe allergic reaction to his treatment, while the MS patient developed a rash. Since the programme was aired on the 29th August several other people have written to Newsnight describing how they too have been duped. The reporter, Susan Watts, seems to have been both courageous and persistent in her investigations and has probably prevented many other people from wasting great sums of money and harbouring false hopes.

The businessman (who used to be an attorney) and his partner live in a large house in Cape Town with views over the bay. In stories like this I try and see it from every point of view - I suppose it is the creative writer in me. I can imagine being greedy for money and justifying my greed with the delusion that I was helping people. If I were determinedly and deliberately ignorant I suppose I could look at the hopes for stem cell therapy and convince myself I was turning those hopes into a treatment. I think I can get into that businessman's head.

But the head I can't enter is the doctor's. He had examined the cells and could see they were fine. Maybe they were, although no one can see chemicals that have been added to the mixture unless they look for them, but that really is not the point. The point is that this therapy won't work. A doctor cannot claim ignorance and competence at the same time. Although he has stopped injecting cells on behalf of the South African businessman he is still carrying out similar therapies of his own. He is duping unfortunate desperate people and I can't understand why he isn't being stopped.

LATER NOTE: Sorry if you happened to read this earlier and it made no sense - in fiddling around trying to get the links (for a whole hour) I managed to get rid of some of my text as well.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Interview With Susan Tranter: 'Reader in Residence' at the British Council.

In 2004 I received a couple of grants to visit Patagonia in order to research the novel I was writing. I wanted to interview people of Welsh descent to try and find out how the colony over there was established. After a little investigation on the internet I contacted the British Council. They have a scheme to re-introduce the Welsh language to the people there and every year send out experienced Welsh teachers to take classes for both adults and children. There is great interest and the classes are very popular.

Through the British Council I was able to contact people over there and I spent a wonderful fortnight travelling around the place listening to their stories.

The British Council deals with creating educational and cultural opportunities for people in the UK and overseas to learn about each other and run a range of programmes both in the UK and abroad. Their website is quite extensive but with a couple of clicks on 'Arts' you will come across 'Encompass Culture' and inside that their 'Reader In Residence', Susan Tranter.

I was delighted when Susan made contact with me after coming across my blog (on Grumpy Old Bookman's blog); and since I have always been curious about the British Council and Encompass Culture in particular I asked her if she would mind if I interviewed her and she kindly agreed.

As mentioned before we met in the Manchester Art Gallery and had quite a long chat which I enjoyed very much - it so good to meet a fellow blogger.


On being 'Reader in Residence'
CD: How did you get to be "Reader in residence"?
ST: It was very simple, really - the job was advertised and I applied for it. I'd been a literature officer in Cumbria, and worked on all sorts of projects for aspiring writers and reading groups, and started a small press and all that kind of stuff.

CD: Was that with the British Council as well?
ST: No that was with Cumbria County Council - a lot of local authorities have their own Literature Officers - as you probably know.

CD: What do you do as a 'Reader in Residence?'
ST: Well, I keep the content of the site fresh - there are certain things I put up on a regular basis: the book of the month, a monthly newsletter, an author interview, a themed readers' quiz - by genre or country, a news update. And of course there's the Encompass Culture blog and I host on-line chats with readers groups around the world.

CD: That sounds good.
ST: Yes it's pretty cool. It's live, so it's really exciting. Readers in Tashkent, for instance can chat about a book with readers in Blackburn - and everyone is equally articulate and enthusiastic. It's a good example of technology working - a bit like blogging, really - something really worthwhile that you couldn't do any other way.

CD:. What is your typical day?
ST: There isn't one, really. I might surf websites for book news, then read - that's part of the job, but no hardship, really! Do some blogging, then all the rest of the stuff I've mentioned - the author interviews, the newsletter and so on.

CD: Do you choose your own timetable, then?
ST: Yes. It's supposed to be one day a week - but it cuts in through lots of days. I've no idea what it works out as.
CD: Do you do other work for the British Council?
ST: No I work from home, free-lance on a variety of things - like other editorial work, research and copy-editing.

CD: How do you choose the books you read?
ST: For the British Council they've got to be books listed on the Encompass site. These are books by British and Commonwealth authors in the main. I then check that they are current and available in the library - because I'm very much a library user. And then, personal interest, I suppose.

CD: How do you choose books for yourself?
ST: Pretty serendipitously, really. One book may lead to another, or I might like the sound of a title or heard a random anecdote about the author.

CD: Are you influenced by newspaper reviews?
ST: No. I don't really read them. I usually buy the Guardian on a Saturday and look through the book section in there, but find I'm reading this less and less these days.

CD: How influential do you think newspaper book reviews are?
ST: Not very. I suppose that old adage that bad book reviews are more influential than good reviews is probably true, but I just scan them, really.

CD: Do you think blogging is going to become more important?
ST: Yes. A good example is that initiative by Susan Hill, the ‘Bloggers’ Book Award’ - have you seen it? It'll be interesting to see what comes of that.

CD: Where do you buy your books?
ST: I don't buy many books actually. I'm an avid library user. I've also become obsessed with the on-line catalogue. I don't even have to walk up and down shelves trying to find the book. I can just find what I need from home.

CD: Do you have any involvement with reading groups?
I used to be in one, and I used to be involved more in my previous job, but my only contact now is when I host the on-line chats.

CD: Are these reading groups organised by the British Council?
ST: Yes they tend to be groups affiliated to the British Council world-wide. Reading groups can ask to be paired up with other groups across the world. And then sometimes they have an on-line chat with the author of the book the groups have just been reading.

CD: How do they get to hear about the chat?
ST: Through the site, really. Recently we had a big promotion called Africa 21 which promoted African writers and books about Africa. British groups were able to talk to groups in Africa and they could ask questions associated with the book – everything from big issues to finding out about local words that kept cropping up in the text. It was fascinating - a great cultural exchange.

CD: What exactly is Encompass Culture?
ST: An international reading group and a resource for people to find out which books to read, help people choose books and interact with other people. At its heart is a huge database. The ‘EnCompass’ comes from the idea of a compass with a pointer to select different categories books for adults, teenagers and children - and different genres and authors. I don't choose the books listed on it by the way - that's another person's job!

CD: What is the difference between the Encompass newsletter and the Encompass weblog?
ST: The monthly newsletter is a round up of news; whereas the weblog contains my opinions and thoughts. The newsletter is objective, the blog subjective.

CD: How many questions do your get from readers a month?
ST: There's quite a wild variation - from about 1 to 12 or more a month. They could be from anywhere - it's difficult to track. The questions can be on anything from the specific, e.g. the name of an author who wrote a certain book - to the more general or bizarre, e.g. someone might ask: ‘I remember reading a great book once with the word 'donkey' in it - do you know what it is?'

I find the blog does encourage more feedback in response to what I say. For instance when I put up that plea for books on gardens the other day - 4 people responded - all writers, oddly enough.

CD: Have you got any tips for 'writers in residence'?'
ST: Make connections and find out who can help. That way you don't feel as if you are in a vacuum and are not so isolated. Make the most of your time in the place, and don't feel driven to 'give something back' at the expense of your own writing or research time.

CD: What are your favourite books?
ST: I like all those hard-bitten miserable American writers: Hemingway, Carver, O'Connor, and McCarthy.

CD: Do you think that being based in Manchester rather than London gives you a different perspective on the world of books (I'm very proud of this question)?
ST: No! Since I work freelance I can work anywhere really. I don''t have much interaction with publishers, and I'm the sort of person who prefers to visit London rather than live there. And I like Manchester. It's a good place to watch what's going on, and it's easy to get to know people.

CD: How do you help readers find their next book? Have you had any feedback on this?
ST: The odd person has written back, and I'm always grateful for feedback. One person commented that she had gone to see an event at the Edinburgh fringe on my recommendation which was exciting.

On Susan Tranter...
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
ST: Well I hope I'm going to start copy-editing an academic paper on snails in Shakespeare. 65 000 words. I think it's someone's PhD they are hoping to convert into a book.

CD: I shall be interested to read that. What is your proudest moment?
ST: I have a poem dedicated to me by the poet Jacob Polley whose first collection, THE BRINK was published in 2003.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
ST: (Laughs) blogging!

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
ST: I'd be bilingual. Half my family is Finnish and I can hardly speak to them.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
ST: Make my partner's lunch.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Debra Hamel and the art of book reviewing.

Debra Hamel, a blogging comrade, has written a very kind review of my first novel for adults, ONE DAY THE ICE WILL REVEAL ALL ITS DEAD on her book blog.

I am very grateful since, quite ironically, I heard this weekend that the 'rest of the world' edition of this book, WEGENER'S JIGSAW, is to be remaindered.

But thanks for the review Debra! It is always so good to see that someone has thoroughly read my book and understood what I was trying to do.

'Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.' is John Updike's first rule for good book reviewing. I have been reading the rest of them today and they seem to me to be such excellent advice I am printing them out and putting them on the wall above my desk so I can refer to them whenever I try my hands at a review.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Bad show, Toytown!

Interesting wording on the BBC news website when reporting the triumph of the queen's grandaughter, Zara Philips, in the Equestrian World Championships (a sport for anyone - given a spare million):

'Phillips negotiated the showjumping course with only one mistake, when Toytown caught a rail inside the penultimate fence...'

Of course it could equally read:

'Toytown negotiated the showjumping course with only one mistake, when Philips caught a rail inside the penultimate fence...'

but I guess that would give the wrong impression altogether.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Cherry Tree

Hodmandod Major was a fractious baby. It was as if he were very disgruntled at being born.

I was quite a young mother and very much a novice - before Hodmandod Major I had never held a baby in my arms before. I was afraid of drowning him in his bath, and awkward at changing his nappy and dressing him. I longed for him to sleep. I used to rock him in my arms trying to get him drowsy enough to place in his cot but his eyes would stay open: you just try it, they would say, and I'll start bawling again. Hodmandod Senior and I used to eat in shifts. One walking up and down the room to quieten him and then the other.

Then, when he was about four months old, we bought him a baby bouncer and fastened him into the harness. It was the sort that hung in the door way and after a few experimental bounces he went mad with delight. He whooped and yelped and bounced so vigorously I thought he was going to crash into the door frame. Hodmandod Senior and I looked at each other then made a break for the outside. For a while we stood together in the garden marvelling at our freedom while the baby laughed and gurgled on his own inside.

It was May. The sun was shining and the cherry blossom was out. At last I could believe that one day the baby really would play on his own. I went inside and picked him up and asked Hodmandod Senior to take a photo. Then he set the camera on a tripod and took a picture of all three of us together. Then one of us, I forget who, said, 'Let's do this every year, every time the cherry tree is in blossom.'

So we did. It quickly became a tradition. When we moved house we bought another cherry tree just so we would be able to continue what we had started. And of course each year Hodmandod Major grew - from a babe-in-arms to a baby supported on my hip, then a toddler at my knee and then a child and older brother to Hodmandod Minor. Then each year the two of them stood a little higher against the two of us, until one year they were my height, then the next both were smugly looking down at me.

It is strange to look back at these photographs, to see ourselves becoming older year after year. It reminds me of the protagonist in Anne Tyler's PATCHWORK PLANET who as a youth broke into house with his friends - not to plunder but to leaf through photograph albums and watch the faces change. There is something fascinating about how the human face ages and how an infant turns into a child and then a man. Some years we seem to creep into greater maturity and some years we seem to leap; but always the time between the photographs becomes shorter and shorter and I keep wondering why.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Manchester Meeting with Pierre Adolphe Valette

This is Manchester in the north-west of England. It is said to be a place which exists because of rain - where the atmosphere is so humid that the fibres of cotton bolls didn't snap in the looms, where the running water kept running, where there was space to build, and then, quickly, a population of people, drawn from the impoverished countryside with the promise of work - and so the village became town, became city. It spread - sprawled - over the fields around it, subsuming other villages, other towns - with more and more people scuttling and falling as if this was the only place they could stop.

It was dirty, polluted, overcrowded and dangerous. Canals and then railways and then roads forced their way through like blood vessels feeding a new growth. The people lived back to back, side to side, one on the top of the other - crammed, squeezed, choked. Effluent discharged into drinking water, the days became dark as the nights, the work never stopped - all roads led to the factories and all the factories discharged to the slums. They fed upon each other - each growing fat and noxious.

And then, at the end of this, came Valette, an artist from France born in St Etienne in 1876. He was an impressionist, learning his craft through evening classes in Bordeaux and then, after winning a scholarship, at Birkbeck Institute. After a few months he mysteriously left London and went to work in Manchester as a designer in 1904. Again he resorted to honing his craft in evening classes - this time at the Manchester Municipal School of Art. In 1907 he was invited to join the teaching staff where he taught in the French style - by demonstration. The industrial scenes of Manchester lent themselves well to his sfumato style.

According to this article
he revolutionised the place. He also inspired Lowry - which I think is obvious from this detail of his painting of Albert Square. This cart-pusher is almost a caricature of a man - more expressive than a likeness - the drudgery of his life comes over very clearly, and the background - the smog, the yellow-grey dirtiness of everything all adds to the effect.

But Manchester is not like that now. Even when I used to work there as a university research scientist at the end of the eighties, it had changed completely from the smog-ridden industrial city to a place where people came just to work in offices, shops and institutes. At that time no one I knew lived in Manchester. Everyone commuted in from places in the suburbs - Altrincham, Hale, Ashton. Then came the IRA bomb in 1996
which devastated the central area. Recently police footage of the explosion was released and here is a BBC news report recorded on YouTube. No one died, because the police had managed to clear the area after a tip off to a local TV station using the IRA code word. But many were seriously injured and there was million pounds worth of damage.However, out of this disaster has come something good. Since so much was destroyed Manchester was able to use the millions donated towards rebuilding the area into urban regeneration. Public conveniences have been converted into fashionable-looking bars...

(although I cannot rid myself of a slight queasiness as I look at it - surely this place would retain a little cologne d'urinal on Manchester's many damp days?)

While the fine old buildings like the town hall with its cloistered entrance-way

and the art gallery

were thankfully outside the zone of the blast.

People now live where they work, including the person I had come to Manchester to see: Susan Tranter who works for the British Council as 'Reader in Residence". We met in the Manchester Art Gallery, which is the fine building where I encountered Valette's works. There were drawings and paintings - all superb and preferable to Lowry in my view. The man's drawings are robust whereas his portraits are more gentle - but each evoke the character of the subject as well as conveying likeness. You can see the whole collection here . I am now a Valette fan.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Yesterday a friend sent me one of his essays to read. This is always a treat because this friend has quite an incredible vocabulary and I always end up learning something. Yesterday's reading generated the following list of words for me to look up in the dictionary - some because I had never encountered them before and some which were more familiar but wanted to define for certain:

to adumbrate - to outline faintly, to foreshadow, to overshadow.
modernity - modern usage etc
Modernity - Early 20th cent movement in the Arts characterised by unconventional subject matter, experimental techinques etc.
causality - the relationship between cause and effect.
contingency - a chance happening, a possible future event, dependence on the fulfillment of a condition (thanks Aydin).
demotic - relating to the people, popular.
intonation - the rise and fall in the pitch of the voice.
sfumato - a misty indistinct effect achieved by gradually blending together different colours or tone
heuristic - serving or leading to finding out.

The word I like the best out of the selection above is sfumato and I think I may end up using quite a lot myself.

By coincidence I received news from John Klima this morning that my long short story (around 8 000 words, which I mentioned in an earlier post) has been accepted for LOGORRHEA: GOOD WORDS MAKE GOOD STORIES. It is going to be published by Bantam books around May next year to coincide with the National Spelling Bee in the US. I have to admit I am quite delighted about this...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

MORTAL GHOST and an interview with L Lee Lowe

Lee writes rather fine short short stories on a blog (INTO THE LOWELANDS) and has now posted the first four chapters of a novel for young adults (YA), MORTAL GHOST. Every Friday there is a new installment and I find myself waiting for the next one with anticipation. There are two very well-drawn main characters and the story is developing nicely. Jesse seems to have a disturbed past, has powers of healing (well, almost-dead birds, at least), and now has met a girl called Sarah who seems to be feisty but a little naive. There have been scenes of much tension and also some beautifully described passages giving a vivid sense of place.

Following in the wake of a new journal blog LOWEBROW, which hints at a life which involves some travel, Lee kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about MORTAL GHOST - as well as my usual run of questions about life in general.

CD: Why have you travelled around so much?
LLL: I never planned to spend more than half my life in foreign countries. Like so many things that happen to us, it just happened. Determined to become a poet (and undoubtedly under the influence of the exile generation of F. Scott Fitzgerald et al.) I went to Paris to study for a year after university and my first joblets. And one thing led to another, including two longish spells in Germany, where during the first one I met my spouse, and sandwiched in between, eighteen years in Zimbabwe.

But there is of course always a deeper reason for these life histories, and I’ve never stopped reflecting about my self-styled exile: not political, rather a need to be the outsider, the borderliner, perhaps the observer. I’ve decided that I need to write a novel about exile to work it all out for myself. It’s usually through fiction that I come a bit closer to self-understanding.

CD: Why are you interested in writing for young adults? What started off the interest?
LLL: I read very little YA literature as a teen – there wasn’t much of it, and I was more drawn to so-called genre fiction like SF and crime and romance, as well as the classics and a lot of poetry. Plenty of comic books too. And I’m not too proud to admit that I quite liked cereal packet and obituary reading as well. I had reasonably eclectic tastes, and to this day feel there are only interesting and less interesting books, books that are well-written and less well-written; not literary/non-literary ones. Whichever tools work. And throw out the rulebook! For each novel you forge the tools and make the rules you need for the particular challenge you’ve set yourself.

I really began to read and collect YA fiction at university. Adolescence is one of the most intense periods in a person’s life, and all teenagers are in some sense borderliners. Full of energy, full of doubts; full of sound and fury. Questioning, searching, rejecting. In YA lit circles it’s customary to speak of a search for identity – for agency – and while I agree that this is, in our cultural context, an essential part of the teenage years, at least ideally, I don’t like to set an age limit. Rather, I see it as a lifelong process: we all bear the infant, the child, the teenager within us.

That said, I find it’s the borders and crossing places which offer some of the richest soil for fiction.

And I don’t intend to write only for teens. Once I finish the YA novel I’m currently working on, I’m planning to do something quite different.

CD: How long have you been writing?
LLL: Essentially, off and on since childhood, but in the early years, mostly poetry like so many beginning writers. And a lot of fiction which I never had the discipline to finish.

CD: Do you have other employment? What is it?
LLL: Over the years I’ve had the usual liquorice allsortment of jobs that often seems to be part of a writer’s training.

CD: Where did you grow up and where did you go to school and college?
What did you study?
LLL: I grew up on Long Island, in suburbs of New York City. BA in English lit and philosophy from a New York state university – sorry, no Harvard or Yale to vaunt – and an MA from a German university (Heidelberg).

CD: Whereabouts in Germany do you live now? Are you likely to stay
LLL: In the hills above Bonn, near the Rhine River. Will I stay? Probably not.

CD: What initiated MORTAL GHOST? How much of this have you written already? How long is the finished work?
LLL: Initiated? A single image – a dream sequence – which became the first sentences of the first draft, long discarded. The novel is finished but needs certain revisions which I’ve planned but will undertake as the serialisation progresses. There are also certain scenes which I cut from the much longer original version and which I may decide to restore in one form or another. As it now stands, it’s about 350 pages in length.

General Questions.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
LLL: We have a large garden, and in my feeble attempts to grow vegetables organically, I tried the method local gardeners here swear by to rid themselves of the seasonal slug infestation – beer traps (what else in Germany?). Unfortunately, though slugs and snails love the beer, and do crawl in to drown, we couldn’t understand why the plastic saucers were always empty. Until we discovered our dog Gypsy cheerfully draining the traps, slugs and all.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
LLL: No one single moment, many small ones regarding my children. As for myself, I don’t think pride is something which comes readily.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
LLL: The nearest I’ve come, was the suicide of my closest friend’s 15-year-old son several years ago. He’s the Jake to whom MORTAL GHOST is dedicated.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
LLL: Many in Africa: the first newborn who died of tetanus, the toddler daughter of a staff member badly burnt by an unattended paraffin lantern she overturned on herself, my own five-year-old daughter’s discovery of an abandoned newborn baby in a ditch next to our house, the disabled kids who could have avoided polio with simple vaccinations, the street kids, the hungry, the whole generation lost to AIDS. But you don’t have to go to Africa for sadness, it’s an integral part of life.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
LLL:Only one allowed? I’ve got a whole list. Ten years ago it probably would have been to rid myself of my terrible temper. Now it would be a greater gift for writing.

CD: What is happiness?
LLL: There’s no such thing. There are only happy moments.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
LLL: Pee and tea.

Monday, August 21, 2006

New Reading Pile, Old Reading Pile

This is my new reading pile. Astute observers will notice that there are still some in there from my last reading pile and that they have been joined by yet more comrades from the Amazon.

However I can report that some books from the old reading pile have been read and I am going to write a very quick review of each one.

NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro. An unusual book and one which I found quite unbelievable until I was about three quarters of the way through and I realised the point of the novel - whereupon I believed it was one of the most profound books I have ever read. I suppose I had a small epiphany - if such a thing is possible. It was about accepting the life you have and taking nothing for granted. I like the way I was forced to see things in a different way. Like all the other Ishiguro books I have read it was cool, measured, and slightly aloof - and all the better for that. Now I want everyone I know to read it too.

AUSTERLITZ by WG Sebald. This I found mesmerising. The prose with the interspersed pictures seemed to grip me immediately by the hand and lead me through the pages like a child with her mouth wide open in a gormless and rather unattractive manner. The book seemed to speak uniquely to me - part of the reason for this may have been because rather strangely I read the parts set in Wales in Wales and the parts set in London as I was travelling to London. It was as if we were following each other around. At the end of the book I felt I had learnt something important although I didn't know exactly what. I just feel it is there, though, lodged somewhere in the old grey matter, biding its time, just waiting for the right moment to reveal itself.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS by Emily Bronte. Now I know I should remember whether or not I read this when young but I'm afraid that I don't. When I read it recently the text felt familiar - but I wasn't sure if that was because WUTHERING HEIGHTS seems to have entered our collective consciousness (through film and Kate Bush)or whether I really had read it long ago. It seems to affect other adolescents quite profoundly and in the discussion we had about the book in France it seems to have been the one book several people remembered from that time in their lives. Of course this book has been reviewed to death and perhaps all I need to add is that I enjoyed the story and found the structure unusual and interesting.

PATCHWORK PLANET by Anne Tyler. I found this quite a light and highly enjoyable read - some of the parts made me laugh out loud. The main character was very appealing - flawed but likeable at the same time. Towards the end I thought the book gradually changed timbre and became much deeper, with the evocation of old age particularly powerful and well done. I liked this section the best. Like all excellent comedy it juxtaposed tragedy and humour and the result was very affecting and sad. A really good book which I highly recommend - but then I highy recommend all of them.

Finally, the FIRE EATERS by David Almond. This was set against the Cuban Crisis of 1962 - which since I was only 2 or 3 at the time I do not remember. I had not realised that things had been quite so terrifying and David Almond portrays a society which believes that the world they know is about to change forever. The tone is foreboding throughout, gradually building to a climax towards the end; but this sense of dread is softened by the extrememly well-drawn characters which are warm and believable. The setting is unusual - the Northumberland coast of the UK, which in 1962 seems to have been a bit of a backwater. One of the families makes a living by filtering coal dust from the sea and the beach with its seam of coal and dunes makes an evocative setting. It is a book for young adults and I found it as moving as anything else I'd read.

So that is it. There are other books I've read but they didn't appeal to me as much for one reason or another - so I'm ignoring those.

P.S. This post was brought to you via FIREFOX since Safari kept quitting on me even after I'd re-installed it.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Congratulations Chief Biscuit.

Excellent news from New Zealand to start the day!

Congratulations to Chief Biscuit (and thanks to her sister too for making her tell...).

Note: Have just edited the link to a general one for CB's blog - since the permanent address seemed to be doing something odd to my browser. Not a good day for computers.

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Blog

I just tried to look at my blog but all that came up was a blank screen. I tried typing in the address, going from various other links - but still nothing.

I sat back. This was such a horrible feeling - I thought of all my work, all my pictures - and I realised then how valuable this blog is to me in all sorts of ways.

Maybe it was something to do with being a blogger for a year, perhaps. Maybe a year is all you get. Or maybe something else had happened. Maybe all blogs had gone. I checked. They hadn't - just mine.

But then I found I could get onto my last archived post via a link from a comment (CFR's or Susan's - thank you both), and then once there onto the dashboard. My blog still seemed to be registering there at least. I tried the link - but still it was just a blank screen. The trouble-shooting options in blogger help were no help so I emailed them a query.

But then I saw I could still make new posts - so I did. I made a short one with the word test and viewed it - and the whole thing came up again!

Phew. To say the least. I keep testing. It is still there. I really should back this thing up.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


Today is the first anniversary of my blog. So much has happened. I thought maybe I should buy a birthday cake with one candle but all I could think about was one thing and wish I was back a year so I could try to change what would happen next.

I draw you on the back of some paper
your eyes squinting against a sun
you'll never see again
and all I want
my friend
is to hug you close
tell you it's all right
nothing matters
except we love you
look into your eyes
to know that you know
open them
look at me
But you keep them shut.

Chocolate Delights

Susan at IN OVER MY HEAD has this link to a story about a man called Darmin Garcia who went IN OVER HIS HEAD in a vat of melted chocolate. He had to be pulled out by a fire crew - but only after they had ruined the stuff by thinning it out with butterfat. Apparently this Dahlesque adventure has put him off chocolate a little.

Hmmm, I am sure it would take more than this to put me off the brown gold. Perhaps popping in one of these little delicacies from Aydin's site would do the trick. But I doubt it.

Poppy's Haiku

This is a guest's contribution to the haiku competition.

Poppy writes:

She writes prose upstairs
in a bedroom in the dark
while the street lights glow

Bon chance Poppy!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Haiku Competition.

Debra Hamel on book blog has a haiku competition. The prize is a book by Francine Prose. I am jealous of her name. The book sounds excellent so I'm having a go.

However I suggest you don't because the less competition there is, the better, in my view.

Anyway, here is my haiku.

Sometimes my prose wilts:
nothing I do revives it.
Time to press delete.

The modern haiku has seventeen syllables, usually 5, 7, 5 - just for those who are as forgetful as me. Not that you need to know, of course, if you're not going to enter.

The closing date is 31st August. So there's absolutely no time left, anyway.

And the haiku has to contain the word 'prose' in it somewhere, which is incredibly difficult, really. So I shouldn't bother. Honestly.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Here's a poem for Poetry Thursday.

A couple of days ago I came across an old email while I was tidying up my mail boxes.

I am looking for something else when I find them:
ten words -
like your voice on the answerphone,
like your photo
at the bottom of the drawer.

Like standing in the cold sea
- and a warm wave
coming from nowhere.

Just for that moment
you're still here.

Dr Grump - in love

A few days ago I landed on Grumpy Old Bookman's blog. Yesterday I sent him an email of appreciation because he made me feel like I wasn't alone.

Today I mentioned the blog to Dr Grump so she took a look at the blog too. Now she is wandering around with a soppy look in her eyes that I haven't seen before. I asked her what had happened.

'Don't talk to me,' she said, 'I think I've found my soul-mate. I just want to have a little quiet time with my thoughts.' (She talks like this sometimes - she reads a lot of self-help guides).

So I've left her to it. I thought the Grumpy Old Bookman would strike a chord with her too.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Connaissances: A Virtual Encounter.

Jonathon Wonham, of Connaissances, a blog that I much admire, has interviewed me here. He asked me some interesting questions which really made me think and I very much enjoyed answering. Thank you, Mr Wonham!

Of course it was only a virtual encounter because Connaissances is a Paris-based blog - and Paris is a dangerous territory for snails. Actually, thinking about it, Languedoc could have been a bit risky too - but fortunately I got away with it.

Drug Trials, Avian Flu and the Importance of Metaphor

'...The doctors struggled to keep the men going as they tried to figure out what had gone wrong. They gave the patients steroids and a drug designed to tone down the immune system response, but stopped that drug after they discovered the men in fact had lost immune system cells.

They had transfusions of blood products after their blood started to clot abnormally. Tissue started to die and peeled off at the ends of their fingers...'

A quote from a science fiction novel, perhaps? But no, this happened in London just a few months ago and is reported in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine (via Reuters) by Dr. Ganesh Suntharalingam and colleagues about their drug trial. Apparently the patients' immune system went into overdrive, which is similiar to something that happens sometimes in cases of AVIAN FLU.

Just so we know.

I think I'll give up looking at Reuters now. I'm getting depressed. Here, instead is something to cheer the soul - a piece of writing by Professor Roald Hoffmann - poet and playwright...and who just happens to be a Nobel Laureate (for chemistry) too. He writes in this in Scientific American (via The Librarian's Place) about the importance of metaphor in science and in science writing and teaching. He says that too many scientific papers are sanitised because metaphors are thought (mistakenly) to impress no one as they are less rational. This, he believes, is wrong and concludes his piece with the following:

'They have no substance, these mental fetters that constrain metaphor and teaching and narrative in the communication of science. Break them. And when they are gone, still a scientist, you will understand better, see things more clearly, know what we cannot see.'

Which somehow gives me hope.

A Shaggy Sheep Tale

As a Welsh woman I am always very interested in sheep stories even if they come from Australia. According to this Reuters report ugly lambs are usually culled - but now their genes are going to be studied before they are sent to the abbatoir. The ugly sheep will have genes that have gone wrong, and which will be easy to spot when compared to beautiful sheep. In this way the location of genes that are responsible for making beautiful wool will be found on the sheep's chromosomes - or 'flagged' as they say.

So eventually the perfectly-woolled super-sheep will be engineered. Not Dolly then, but something more sophisticated. A Dorinder, perhaps, or a Dorothea, treading carefully over the grasslands in her cat-walk fleece, not a morino fibre out of place.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

My Big Moment...

I have just discovered that my interview with Paul Blezard which I did almost exactly two years ago was aired on ONE WORD radio last weekend in a programme called BETWEEN THE LINES.

At 4.00am.
So I missed it.
Ho hum.
It's probably a good thing. I can't even remember what I said now.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Launch of UNCERTAIN DAYS and an interview with Gill McEvoy

A few weeks ago I went to the book launch of a Gill McEvoy's officially published volume of poetry UNCERTAIN DAYS. I say 'officially published' because a few years ago I suggested to Gill that I act as her editor and collected together a few of her many splendid poems and 'publish' them.

Even though this was a strictly amateur venture it was quite a success. It was called 'TIME OF LEAVES' which was the title of one of Gill's poems. Zoë Gotts, the daughter of a friend, drew some beautiful pictures to go with several of the poems and I put it all together on my computer for a local firm to print. Gill then sold all of the resulting copies in aid of the local hospice.

But now Gill's work has been taken on by a real publisher called Happenstance, with a proper editor (on the left here), and UNCERTAIN DAYS is the result.

The back of the volume has this short biography.
As a young mother, Gill McEvoy faced the disabling illness and eventual death of her husband. Just before the millennium, she herself was diagnosed with ovarian cancer - the illness which killed her mother. Doctors predicted she wouldn't see Easter. They were wrong.

The collection is arranged as a narrative - it starts with poems about childhood and Gill's parents, and then goes on to some extremely powerful poems dealing with the illness and death of her husband. Then, over a couple more poems, Gill's illness appears, and the poetry deals with her journey through that. This might sound like bleak, miserable stuff, but it is not. She talks about 'the body-shell from which the 'you' has gone' and although it is quite sad it is also defiant. There is no self-pity, more a sense of determination. And of course there is beauty, and always an enchanting cleverness as she links, for instance, 'stars' with 'bright apples always out of reach', and the coat that was 'you' which was 'stubborn in the way it wouldn't burn'.

Towards the end of the book there is a sense of optimism, because of course Gill has been changed by her experiences: 'For I'm a hard woman now. I am diamond, carborundum...' she declares, and then ends the book with a poem that has just seven short lines. It describes the flight of a lark - transposing movement into sound and then sound into sight. 'All you can see now is the song.' she says - which seems to me to be a joyful look forward.


C.D: Do you have any connection with snails?
G.M: Very fond of rams-horn snails: I had a huge pond dug in a garden I once owned and everything was gooey green until I received a consignment of these sweet little snails from a friend. It was like being given an army of cleaners, the water was clear in no time at all! I really miss that pond and those little creatures. A strong memory of that same garden is of a thrush turning over a clay flower pot which was so crowded with snails they were pyramiding out of the bottom of it once it was face up to the sky. The thrush had a marvellous time; all I could hear for ages was the tac-tac-tac of the thrush’s beak cracking the snails open. It had such a lust for them I suspected it might have been of French origin. I hope, as Keeper of the Snails, you are not upset by this!

C.D: What is the saddest thing you've ever seen?
G.M: Saddest moment was once after the Chester Midsummer Watch parade I saw a mother dump in a waste-bin all the silver birds her children had made and proudly carried in the parade. She asked them if they wanted to keep them and they hesitated, probably because they wanted to say yes but understood they should say no, so she grabbed the lot and dumped them. I wanted to rescue the birds, they were so beautiful, and I felt really sorry for those children.

C.D: What is happiness?
G.M: Writing, for me, is happiness! And Snoopy from the Peanuts cartoons.

C.D: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
G.M: Make tea, let the dog out, go back to bed and write.

C.D: When did you start to write?
G.M: As a child. I’ve always written.

C.D: Your work seems to be largely autobiographical. Is all your work like this?
G.M: No, not at all. Just this collection “Uncertain Days”. My publisher selected these poems because they paint a moving and also triumphant picture of a life which has been very troubled, but which still has room for celebration.

C.D: How did your illness affect the way you write?
GM: My illness made me more driven than I already was. I realised intensely that life is shorter than we think and that there is only Today to write; no good putting it off until tomorrow. The saddest thing is I find I get much more tired now than I used to and cannot write for as long as I would like. But I do as much as I can manage, and write most days even if it is only in my journal.

CD: You also write about your childhood and your parents. Did they have a big influence on your work?
G.M: Adversely, yes. I have nothing to thank them for as regards my writing other than that they gave me the chance to be in this world! My father found one of my early childhood stories, a long saga of animals on a journey (much influenced by Tschiffeley’s “Tale of Two Horses” which I absolutely loved), roared with laughter and showed it to all his friends who also roared with laughter. I almost stopped writing there and then.

C.D: What do you think has influenced your work the most?
G.M: Everything I have ever read, I would say; poets like Louis MacNeice, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, Kathleen Raine, Mary Oliver, Michael Longley, Luis Cernuda, and many, many others. Plus the essays of Charles Lamb and HE Bates (do you know his essay collection “Down by the Riverside”? It has the most wonderful description of ice-skating that I know of! And no-one I know has written of the juiciness of pears as sensually as H E Bates has done. He is one of the few writers who are able to convey smell in his writing.)

C.D: Most of your work is free form. Do you ever try to write poems in traditional forms e.g. a sonnet? Do you enjoy these (if so)? Which do you prefer? What would you say are the best features of each?
G.M: I do write in traditional form occasionally; it is a good discipline to do so, but I prefer to create my own forms and I really love internal rhyme.

C.D: What is your favourite topic for poetry? (If you have one).
G.M: It would have to be the world of nature, I think, trees, birds, flowers, insects. But I write about many things.

C.D: What do you plan to/ hope to write next?
G.M: I think I would like to see a full collection of my poetry appearing one day. Although there are great benefits with the chapbook form: chapbooks are cheaper and therefore easier to sell; you can group work on various themes/aspects of your fields of interest; I would have enough work for several chapbooks. I have written many poems about birds and would love to produce a chapbook of these poems. There are some of my bird poems in “Uncertain Days”, of course, but there are many more waiting to be gathered into book form.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Languedoc: a post-script

I returned on Wednesday - just a few hours before the precautions to guard against terrorist attacks came into force. I feel sorry for those who follow on after me. During the last few years, when I have been travelling extensively in order to research my books, I must have spent hours waiting at airports amusing myself writing into my laptop or reading a book, and the thought of having to spend hours alone without these toys hardly bears thinking about.

I keep wondering what will turn out to be the truth. The police must believe that they have strong evidence of a planned attack and I guess that it is far better to be safe than sorry. But there have been so many false alarms; it makes us complacent and it also makes us more accepting of our declining freedom.

I also cannot see why the names of the suspects have been released by the Bank of England and the Pakistan government. Nothing has been proved against these people as far as I can tell - and once named they will never be seen by some as truly innocent again (if that is what they turn out to be).

Reading Week in Languedoc: Part 2

'I have to warn you - the Roujan Feste is on just now.' Zoe (who is standing in this picture behind Andrew and Brenda - two of the people on the course) told me as we were driving to the villa. 'Something we will know to avoid in future. The last couple of nights it's kept going until two in the morning - loud music, disco - just at the bottom of the garden.'

But the night I was there it was quieter than it had been. A jazz band started half way through dinner, nothing too loud, quite pleasant in fact, and after our meal Graham (sitting opposite Sara at the end of the table here), Paul (on the right, immediately behind Mary, the woman with the red hair) and I talked long into the night while the rest watched a film version of Wuthering Heights in preparation for the next day's discussion. We finished the evening by walking down through the garden to see the Feste for ourselves.

The French take having a good time very seriously. I remember this from long-ago camping trips with my parents and brothers. Bastille Night always made me wish I was French - their fireworks seemed so much better than ours - and how much better to have fireworks on a warm sultry night in summer than a cold damp night in November!

However this was not Bastille Day but the village's own private summer festival. The whole population was out there sitting at long tables with food and wine in front of them. At the entrance was a small brightly lit Merry-Go-Round with children milling gently around, and various stalls selling more food and drink. At one end there was a small clear area where couples of all ages were dancing: middle-aged couples practising a skilful slow waltz; elderly women clutching each other for mutual support in a jolly but determined way; a couple of teenage boys attempting to break dance, a few amorous young couples clinging together rather more closely than strictly necessary, and threading their way around all of these were the children - running, laughing and trying to dance too - like a particularly fluid glue getting into all the spaces. Well that is how it seemed to me. Then close by was the stage with a woman singing songs I didn't recognise although they were in English, a small band, and then an accordion - immediately turning the occasion into something that was unmistakably French.

It finished late, but I didn't mind. For the last couple of hours I listened to it from my bed and the music was so gentle it lulled me into unconsciousness. I woke late, almost ten o'clock, but since I had been awake for almost twenty four hours the day before I felt I had some excuse. We then discussed Wuthering Heights by this pool (which contains Sara, one of the readers). It was an interesting discussion, touching on themes such as incest, the gothic novel, and what the author was saying about class. Several people seemed to have encountered this book at adolescence, when they found it affected them tremendously. We also considered the influence of film and the Bronte family itself in the writing of this book.

While I was sitting there listening I noticed this

The owner of the house, Teddy,

is an artist and the garden is strewn with art half-hidden in the bushes, like these birds

or this piece of abstract sculpture

or a treetrunk decorated with bells

or, my particular favourite, this sculpture of a child hanging from a tree.

There are two pools - here is Judith, another member of the group, reading beside one with Teddy's wife making the most of the warm water;

a small duck pond with some indolent ducks

and several interesting outbuildings with large function rooms and gites which can be hired separately.

The inside of the villa is just as interesting. A rather grand hallway, crammed with pictures

leads into equally interesting rooms, and it was here that I gave my talk on my novel, 98 Reasons For Being, and then answered questions about my writing.

The day ended with apperitifs and then dinner. Here is Lee, the other owner of Seven Day Wonders, doing the vital task of opening more wine (this week they were also sampling a variety of wines of the region), having helped prepare yet another French feast.

The participants of the course were very intelligent - and asked me some really good questions. They were also very kind about my book. In fact it was, without doubt the most enjoyable work I have ever done - not only because of the setting but because of the company too. The next morning I had to leave early to catch my plane so I didn't have the opportunity to say good-bye, but if any of you are reading this - thanks very much for being such a lovely audience. It was much appreciated.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Reading Week in Languedoc: Part 1

When I first posted that I was going to Languedoc as guest author I also mentioned the poster of a monastery I had on my wall as a child; how the yellow-walled building were perched on the top of a hill and how I could see the monks there, busily going about their tasks. Well, as I approached Perpignan airport on Monday I am sure I saw it - slightly smaller than I remembered, but on a hill with wooded slopes all around. So I grabbed my camera, looked again but it had gone. So this picture is what followed afterwards - wooded slopes and fields, a haze of heat covering everything and then in the distance hills merging into sky.

Now I guess should not have been surprised to see Jane Rogers (the other author on the course). After all I knew she was going to take this opportunity to take a bit of a holiday, but when I saw a woman that looked very much like the photo I'd recently seen of Jane Rogers waiting at Manchester for the flight, and then seen her again mid-flight, then again waiting for a bus outside the airport, I didn't say anything at first. I wasn't absolutely certain it was her. I thought of waving the book I was reading ostentatiously around (which was one of the books on the reading list) to see if she looked interested but in the end resorted to blurting out 'Are you Jane Rogers?' Another great photo-opportunity missed.

We shared a taxi (with Jane's husband and another woman) to Perpignan Railway Station where we said good-bye - for then at least- and I investigated Salvador Dali's famously inspirational waiting room, but I am afraid it failed to inspire me at all - it was small, with plastic chairs, and a solitary man smoking - so instead I went back to the main ticket hall and looked at the ceiling. This I could believe was the centre of the universe, or at least a depiction of the centre of the universe. I stared at this until I felt slightly dizzy and then examined my thoughts very carefully to see if they were different. But I could detect not an iota of inspiration, only an overwhelming feeling of panic. I had to catch a train to Besiers - and in order to do this I had to try out my very rusty and never very good French. But very luckily I found some people whose gaps in English were far less severe than my gaps in French and eventually managed to throw myself on a train... which very fortunately happened to be the right one.

Zoe (from Seven Wonders Holidays) picked me up from the station and very soon we had entered the old world of Roujan

or more specifically La Maison Verte (I was given a the little two-story cottage which clings to the side of the main house by the gate - 'the Limpet') which looks a good deal less imposing on the outside than within the interior courtyard.

The man who used to own the house came from a family of wine growers - rough stuff apparently - which seems not to be an unusual occupation in these parts. After lunch I went for a short walk above the village and came across a crumbling church with bells that sounded the hours, and half hours with a doleful repetitiveness

and sported an interesting gargoyle that appealed to me rather a lot

with a graveyard above that with elaborate mausoleums

and family plots. I keep finding myself in graveyards. These places fascinate me, and I am not sure why. I don't think I am particularly macabre, but I do like to walk among the stones. Maybe it is because they seem to me to exude a sort of peace, or maybe it is because they remind me a little of my childhood. My grandfather was a monumental mason and although he was buried under his own piece of marble very soon after I was born, my grandmother's house kept the trappings of his occupation for the rest of my childhood: the white marble chips making up the path, the half-finished grey shiny slabs stacked up against the green-painted corrugated iron walls of the workshop, the pieces of partly-shaped slate, the stone urns with mesh for flowers and the letters engraved in Welsh and English waiting to be filled with lead 'Most beloved', 'Fy Mamgu', 'At Peace With the Lord'. In France it seems that things are even more elaborate.

The soil was dry, dusty, yellow and the day was hot. As I walked I saw no one and the sounds of the human world quickly disappeared. The crickets and grasshoppers seemed to warble quite aggressively in the long grass on each side of the path - as if it was not just the heat but the sound that was making the air shimmer around me. It was early afternoon by now and I was the only one stupid enough to be outside. Soon the grass gave way to grape

some large and green and covered in that bloom which made them seem frosted

and others small and black, already like small glossy currants. I liked the pattern of the rows stretching up the gentle slopes and the gnarled texture of the ancient-and-fragile-looking trunks, and for a while sat beside one relishing the quiet and marvelling that I was there in the heat, completely alone in the middle of a French vineyard, when just a few hours ago I was in the middle of much colder Cheshire.

I returned to the village past reminders that no matter how hot the summer, cold winter will inevitably follow,

and then beside busy streets and alleyways - the latter always a particular favourite of mine, because I always like to feel they might lead to somewhere wonderful...and all I have to do is keep walking and I shall be there too.