Friday, March 31, 2006


I know this s a matter of taste - but I very much love this. It is the cover for 98 REASONS FOR BEING from my Dutch publisher (Ambos Anthos). Since the catalogue arrived this morning from my agent I have done virtually nothing except look at her.

The Dalai Lama

Today, 47 years ago, the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet. His story is an astonishing one. At the age of three he was recognised as the new reincarnation of the spiritual leader of Tibet by travelling monks. He came from a family of farmers and was one of five children. In 1959, he was forced from his palace by the Chinese and made an arduous fifteen day journey to India. There he was granted asylum and 80 000 other Tibetans joined him to form 'A Little Tibet'. From then until now he has been according to this BBC website 'a symbol of peaceful resistance against opression throughout the world' and in 1989 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

When asked if he believes that he was really is the reincarnation of the spiritual leader of Tibet he says 'The answer is not easy to give.'. It seems to me that his life has answered that question for him. This BBC website contains much interesting information and links including an interview with the author and climber Heinrich Harrer (mentioned in an earlier blog).

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Santa's SECRET MIX - Update

Well, Matthew Beaumont was the unfortunate person who ended up having to listen and then review my Santamix selection (as organised by Andrew Holmes on his blog 64Clarke). He somehow manages to be insulting, kind and funny all at the same time.

I'm really glad I took part - I enjoyed listening to Matthew David Scott's selection and also enjoyed reading the selection and criticism of other writers and artists. All of them were interesting and I think it is a good way of glimpsing into the musical parts of their minds. It also introduced me to some new music and made me realise that I am missing out on a lot.

Those who have taken part so far are: Matt Beaumont, Pete Wild, David Mitchell, Will Ashon, Hari Kunzru, Matthew David Scott, Matt Thorne, Nick Stone and John Williams.

Corpsing out.

Hodmandod Major woke at 2.30am recently feeling thirsty, so blearily he opened the door of his bedroom in the flat he shares with three others and encountered these...

Apparently they didn't move even when nudged, and so Hodmandod Major was able to get a shot of the upper end of the body too which I am not posting to save the blushes of its owner. Next to the torso nestled an empty bottle of Jack Daniels and I can only assume that was the cause of the 'ailment'.

I just have to say that I don't remember anything like this happening in St Aidan's College for Young Gentlewomen in Durham which was where I took my degree. Everything was terribly refined. We had sherry before dinner, said grace in Latin, wore gowns three times a week and had to ask the permission of high table in order to leave dinner early. There were balls in the summer, parties most weekends, and formal dinners at least once a term when we could invite young gentlemen from a neighbouring establishment. Looking back now it seems terribly privileged. I don't remember anyone being so drunk that they toppled like a tree, and I don't remember knowing anyone on drugs either. This seems quite strange because I am sure it must have been happening around me - I can only assume I was too naive to notice.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

My Typical Day

One of the advantages of living in a small town is that the local newspapers are always desperate for copy, especially the ones that come out daily. Their new feature is 'A Day in the Life of...' and under the misconception that my day must be very interesting because I am a writer a local journalist rang me today for details of mine.

The trouble is, of course, my typical day, although it absorbs me, is not very interesting to anyone else at all. It consists mainly of gazing at computer, eating, drinking, gossiping on the phone, going to an exercise class, reading a book, blogging - and writing.

I think that journalist would have been better off talking to someone like a nurse, a teacher or a doctor. I am sure their typical day is full of incident - and more worthwhile.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Bonsai Tree as Pretentious Metaphor

Hodmandod Major (eldest son) is 21 and at university studying physics. Here is his bonsai tree which he bought at the beginning of a recent semester and brought home the other weekend because he didn't think it looked too well. He has inherited his green fingers from his mother, bless him.

This bonsai tree is a metaphor for the current state of my novel. The plot and the basic structure are there - I just hope by the end of the week it will have some foliage and will be showing more signs of life.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Lady Chatterley's Lover, the F word and Penguin Books

Last night there was another excellent drama on BBC4 - a re-enactment of the trial of the book Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence - as I have mentioned before I am a big fan of this writer's work.

The programme was a combination of fact (the transcript from the court proceedings) and fiction (the effect of the trial on two of the jurors). As the proceedings went on, these two jurors began and pursued an affair, initiated, in part by the fact that they were required to do a kind of group read of the book. She was a divorced and experienced woman, he was a younger, and much more naive, married man, whose wife was expecting a baby. Eventually passages from the book and their interpretation by experts led these two jurors to question the morality of what they were doing and by the end of the case they had decided that the affair must also end.

Lady Chatterley's Lover, it turned out, was not a corrupting influence at all. In fact it was the opposite - it examined the sanctity of the monogamous sexual relationship, supported loyalty and faithfulness, and explored the themes of beauty and honesty particularly between the working and upper classes in pre-war England.

I thought it was particularly interesting how D H Lawrence's use of the word 'fuck' was defended. Apparently he believed that the word should be used for the sexual act and and was demeaned when used frequently as a swear word. He thought it a pure word which had a proper place in the English language and in literature.

I was also interested to hear that the publisher Allen Lane set out to found Penguin books for the working man (or woman). He wanted books to be accessible and the same price as a packet of 10 cigarettes. I am so glad he won the case. He was, he said, willing to go to jail in order to defend his right to publish the book. My parents always had a great deal of respect for Penguin books - and now I think I know why.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Glow worm - the poem.

Following on from Adrian's suggestion (in comments here) that some poems would be better written as prose I did the reverse...and by adding a few line breaks converted my 101 word story into a 101 word poem...well maybe it is a poem, I don't really know. I think I prefer it as a piece of prose but I don't know why. But it is strange that just changing the way it is set out on the page makes such a difference.

He had wings,
I did not.
Wait for me, he said,
so I did.
Up a stem then down again,
every night for a week.

It was a hot
no rain,
no excuses,

but he didn't come.
I glowed with rage.
Then I shone with embarrassment.
I told myself he didn't matter,
that there were plenty more bugs in the air
- and lit the sky with my mournful radiance.

Which, it turned out, did the trick.

A multiple birth!
Glow now, they say,
but I cannot.
It will be the death of me, I say,
and know I am right.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Jeff VanderMeer Interview on the Podcast Dragonpage

Excellent podcast interview with Jeff VanderMeer here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Glow Worm

I have been researching glow worms for a little project on bioluminescence. Apparently they live very happily on small snails and are not worms at all but beetles. There is more on them here.

Just the thing for a 101 WORD STORY...

He had wings, I did not. Wait for me, he said, so I did. Up a stem then down again, every night for a week. It was a hot mid-summer, no rain, no excuses, but he didn't come. I glowed with rage. Then I shone with embarrassment. I told myself he didn't matter, that there were plenty more bugs in the air - and lit the sky with my mournful radiance.

Which, it turned out, did the trick.

A multiple birth! Glow now, they say, but I cannot. It will be the death of me, I say, and know I am right..

Monday, March 20, 2006


I am now at the same point in my writing as I was on Wednesday 15th March at 3.10pm. Five days work to replace five days work. It is not exactly the same of course, but it is as close as I could make it.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Ideal Life of John Wyndham

There was interesting TV biography on the life of John Wyndham (full name John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris) last night. It was a reassuring tale for late starters. Although he had had literary success in the form of published short stories his breakthrough only came at the age of 48 with THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. His work was based on the main scientific concerns of the day (luckily for him it was a time of extraordinary scientific discovery). The triffids tale was initiated by reports of a Russian scientist experimenting with mutations in plants; TROUBLE WITH LICHEN was probably inspired by Flemings's discovery of penicillin; THE KRAKEN WAKES was written in the wake of series of devastating floods in England; and THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS was written during a time of international interest in the sightings of UFOs.

His life, it seemed, was not extraordinary - his main traumas coming from two events: when his parents separated when he was a child and when the daughter of a family friend decided to become a nun!

However one aspect of John Wyndham's life was very interesting to me in a quiet way - and this is in the way he chose to live. For about thirty years he chose to live in a place called THE PENN CLUB in London. This, apparently, was an austerely decorated place (although it looked quite fine to me). He shared a bathroom and ate in the communal dining room. The love of his life, Grace Wilson, for some time lived in the next door room and then departed to teach literature in a girls school. She was a career woman - in those days only single women were expected to work, and indeed upon marriage women teachers took a drop in salary. John and Grace eventually married only when she retired aged 60 and went to live in a house furnished throughout by Harrrods. After that it seems that John Wyndham had very little published again - devoting himself to househusbandry.

The moral of this tale I think is that writing and housework do not mix - in fact complete isolation in a place like a shed (Roald Dahl and many others), a monk's cell or a prison cell is good because you don't feel obliged to do any. In comparison to these alternatives THE PENN CLUB seems like luxurious writers accommodation to me, no matter how austere the decoration - as long as they have broadband connection and NO APPLEWORKS software.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Good-bye Appleworks

I almost lost my work again today - the work I am having to do again because I lost it before. Appleworks decided to suddenly stop saving my work when I asked it to. There had been no 'unexpectedly quit' and no warning. And now I realise that this has happened before. Several times my work has not been saved when I thought it had - I had put it down to my own error but now I am convinced it was not.

Today, though I took precautions - I copied it all to clipboard before closing the file and I am so glad I did because all my modifications had gone again.

So, Appleworks, I am not impressed and I am voting with my feet. From now on I'm changing to Microsoft Word and hope this is more reliable.

I am not even half-way to the point I was before and I am having to give up for tonight because exhaustion has set in. This must be one of the most frustrating things that has ever happened to me. I keep seeing places where I made my writing better but I can't remember what is was and how it went.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Today I realised I had better back up the file I have been working on for the past 5 days - 10 000 words had built up when I hadn't been looking.

I pressed 'command' and 'save' as usual and then closed the file so I could convert to word. Then when I opened it again it had changed back to the file I had 5 days ago. All the changes I'd made gone. Hodmandod Senior came home from work early to try and find it, but it hadn't even been saved on the autosave.

Stupid computer.

The only thing I can do is try again. They were, of course, the best words I had ever written...or at least better rubbish than the rubbishy ones I first put down.

From now on I am backing up every sentence.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Today, 23 years ago, at the age of 23, I first became a Hodmandod. To celebrate this auspicious anniversary Hodmandods Senior and Minor made a snowhodman in the garden. I think they could have worked a bit harder on the shell to be honest. They did it in their bare feet to see if it made their feet feel warmer, and Hodmandod Senior reports back that it did - afterwards.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

SANTA'S SECRET MIX - the reviews

Andrew Holmes has just posted the second review of SANTA'S SECRET MIX on his new blog 64 Clarke. It is by Hari Kunzru - and it is pretty funny.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Thanks to Janet W who left comments on my posting about the Carl Djerssi talk (as well as a link to her excellent description of his lecture) I have discovered a website called LABLIT . It deals with books that look at science in fiction - as novels, plays and films - and I cannot understand why I haven't come across it before. Also on this website is a link to something called SCITALK which puts scientists in touch with writers - and I have availed myself of its services already...I wish I knew about this ages ago - such a brilliant idea.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Baroness Greenfield's Analysis of the Mind and Creativity

A strange thing: I spent the journey down to London writing a short story about a man who has Alzheimer's disease (having done a little research about the condition in advance), then when Baroness Greenfield was introduced discovered that Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease were two areas of her research. Here is my interpretation of Baroness Greenfield's talk.

Huntington's Chorea is unique in that it is caused by one 'bad' gene; other brain dysfunctions are thought to have more complex causes - but all brain disorders can be affected by environment. A 'rich' environment which challenges and stimulates the brain both delays the onset of the condition and ameliorates its effects - at least in mice. This is thought to be because a 'rich' environment causes more connections between synapses e.g. London taxi drivers have more connections in their hypocampuses through acquiring 'the knowledge' (an internal map of London in the head). Furthermore, imagining doing something encourages the growth of synaptic connections just as much as physically doing something, so that imagining yourself doing finger exercises when learning to play the piano is just as good as actually doing them. This is something I have heard applied to gymnasts too - imagining how to move along the bar improves the performance just as much, or nearly as much, as actually physically doing it - something called visualisation, I think.

When we are born we have few connections between synapses. As we grow we begin to make sense of all the sensations that are bombarding us and learn to make connections. We were shown a series of diagrams showing the typical nerve cells for a baby, a child, an adult and then someone beginning to suffer from dementia and then full-blown senility. These fragile-looking things reminded me of a seedlings complete with roots and shoots. The baby's and the senile person's were remarkably similar - almost devoid of connections. Someone with Alzheimer's has their associations dismantled and they come to understand less and less. This reminded me so much of Shakespeare's ages of man in AS YOU LIKE IT.

Baroness Greenfield concluded the first part of her talk by observing that the mind is 'the personalisation' of the brain and vulnerable to drugs and disease. She then went on to consider what might come next, how the new technologies where silicon chips may be interfaced with biological neurons (which has already started to happen) which may enable the mind to become enhanced - and what will happen to society as a result.

She also went on to consider the concept of creativity - theorising that it is necessary to
(i) be able to deconstruct (ie to be able to work within small networks like the child, to abstract sensations);
(ii) make unusual, idiosyncratic connections;
and (iii) trigger new associations and therefore see the world in a new way and so activate more extensive connections thereby triggering the 'Eureka' moment.

This all ties in with what I encountered before in Djerassi's lecture and in the films on creativity in the BEAUTIFUL MINDS exhibition itself - creativity comes with the opportunity and ability to make new connections and Baroness Greenfield has provided a possible rationale.

After the end of the lecture there was a very interesting question and answer session which included a consideration of what exactly is human nature and it was suggested that maybe it could be described by the seven deadly sins.

Baroness Greenfield is an accomplished speaker and performer. Her talk was delivered rapidly and very fluently with references to cartoons and jokes at her own expense - all of which made for an entertaining seventy-five minutes. This talk, I felt, was a taster (because very often I found myself wanting to know more) leading to the main course which consists of her books - THE PRIVATE LIFE OF THE BRAIN and TOMORROW'S PEOPLE: HOW 21st CENTURY TECHNOLOGY IS CHANGING THE WAY WE THINK AND FEEL. The title of the latter seems oddly poignant- as I sit here writing this blog.

The talk seems to have inspired me because this morning I woke very early with so many ideas rushing around my head I had to get up right away and get them down - which is very unusual for this owl.

Scary Sons

My best work!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Baroness Susan Greenfield at the British Library

Tomorrow I am catching the train down to London again - this time to see Baroness Susan Greenfield at the British Library. A few years ago she gave a memorable series of lectures for children (part of the series at Christmas at the Royal Institution) on the brain and then a little while later presented a very interesting series of television programmes on the same subject. The message from both, but particularly from the second, seemed to me to be how little we know about the human mind. It looks like this theme will be explored further in this lecture:

From the British Library Events Brochure: Beautful Minds

'Is human nature about to change forever? Can we envisage a world where everything we take for granted about ourselves - imagination, free will, love, desire - becomes obsolete? The science and technology that are already at the heart of our lives will soon come to transform not just the way we live, but the way we think and feel.

'Baroness Greenfield will explore the prospect of a world free of pain and disease, where we can manipulate our bodies with machinery and our moods with 'smart drugs'. In this virtual realm of 'dreams and shadows', the notion of our individual self may, in fact, be obliterated entirely.'

General Paralysis of the Insane

Galaxy from Brisbane has come across my book 98 REASONS FOR BEING in her local Borders and wonders (on her blog) what Lise, one of the patients in my version of Hoffmann's asylum, was suffering from - in the book Hoffmann calls it 'general paralysis of the insane' - but today we would say she was suffering from tertiary syphilis.

The history of syphilis is very interesting. It started as a mild skin disease in the tropics but changed to something much more lethal when it was brought to more temperate latitudes. From a port in the Mediterranean in the middle ages it spread throughout Europe, at first too aggressive for its own good - killing its host before it could effectively spread the contagion - before mutating once again to become a more effective microbe that could survive and spread in the population.

By the nineteenth century syphilis was widespread - crowding in the expanding industrial centres proving to be ideal conditions for its propagation. Once someone was infected by syphilis it was, initially, fairly obvious with primary symptoms (skin eruptions) at ‘the point of contact’ (to put it delicately). This was the primary stage and it was generally known that this could be cured using a compound containing mercury (calomel). However if the infection was not cured then it would spread throughout the body producing secondary symptoms (a rash perhaps) but after this it might lie dormant for years with no further sign and the patient would probably consider his or herself cured. However after some time (tens of years) the infected patient might suddenly start behaving oddly, exhibiting wildly extrovert and ridiculously optimistic behaviour before losing control of both limbs and mouth. They could also have fits. The symptoms were well known (though the link to syphilis hadn't yet been made), followed a set pattern and were known as 'general paralysis of the insane'. This was because the spirochete that causes syphilis had started to attack the brain - and the eventual result was complete paralysis and death.

The Odd Couple: Euston Station 27th February 2006 21.07

They swept in front of me, she a good foot taller than he, dressed in identical beige trench coats, his arm reaching up to hold her, a small fat neck, his white hair folding up into a curl at his collar, and her face leaning down, her neck curving like a swan's to kiss him. She was in her mid-thirties I'd say, a pretty blonde woman, her face a fluid movement of expressions, as if she couldn't settle on one, leaning down, kissing the bald pate of his head, soaring up again, talking - and even though I couldn't hear a word of what they said I knew what she'd be saying - how she'd miss him, how she had missed him, how they were meant to be together, then swooping down again, her lips alighting, while he reached around her and hugged, his body stiffer, much older, a stub of a man, his head high because of her attentions, talking back, his face at an angle upwards to speak to her.

I knew I shouldn't look but my eyes kept being drawn back. I would look up to the great electronic notice board telling me my train was being prepared and then down again, and they would still be there, the odd couple, acting out their courtship like a pair of migratory birds, and so I invented tales of how they met and where they were going, how long they would be together, and how they would part. Because, I decided, this liaison was too intense to last. She would be the one to tire. Maybe she would look at him one day lying next to her in bed and realise that it had to end - all his wit, his wealth, his wisdom could not make up for the way his skin slopped from him as he slept and the way the white hair erupted from every vesicle of skin, and the way he snored and muttered of old times in his sleep. She would rise silently then and pack her bag. It was half packed already because she was a woman who couldn't settle. She would grab the two handles and walk away, leaving her trench coat next to his on the hooks by the door - even though she had tried her best again it seemed that she just would never find a place to fit.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Penguin Cover

My editor at Viking, Paul Slovak, sent me the proposed Penguin cover of my novel 98 REASONS FOR BEING last night and I am very pleased to report that I love it. It is bright, striking and unusual. I have spent all the idle moments of my day happily thinking of it.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Professor Carl Djerassi

As expected Professor Carl Djerassi's talk was very interesting. He started writing fiction in his sixties, after a life of scientific discovery - having won both the National Medal of Science (for the first synthesis of an oral contraceptive) and the National Medal of Technology (for promoting new approaches to insect control). He said that not many chemists write or even read novels - they are too busy reading scientific papers and keeping up in their field. Therefore he was able to create his own genre using his extensive experience as an eminent research scientist.

He said that although most scientists enter the profession idealistically with the intention of improving the lot of mankind this almost inevitably becomes complicated with a zeal to succeed and become 'the first'- and be recognised as such by peers. Hence 'Noble science' becomes a lust for the Nobel (or some other such recognition). This sometimes unattractive but productive competition in scientists is rarely recognised and so he has made it one of the main motivations of the characters in his novels and now his plays.

After writing over 1200 scientific articles he turned to fiction - publishing a collection of short stories, poetry and five novels - and it was with a reading from CANTOR'S DILEMMA, his first novel, that he started the talk. The theme of the pressure on the scientist to be 'the first' was continued in a an excerpt from OXYGEN (see earlier posting). Professor Djerassi has now turned from science-in-fiction to science-in-theatre with a great deal of success. His plays have been performed widely and translated into many different languages. As I had only read the play OXYGEN before it was exciting to see a section of it being performed on film.

I would love to be able to see his latest play TABOOS which is currently being performed at the New End Theatre, Hampstead (Feb 23- April 2) - people around me who had seen it told me it was excellent - both in terms of the writing and the acting and the topic sounds intriguing. But unfortunately it is too far out of my way - one of the many penalties of living 200 miles away from London.

To console myself I bought NEWTON'S DARKNESS a play about the rivalry between Newton and Leibniz and the invention of calculus - being 'the first' was important even in the seventeenth century. Professor Djerassi's reading of an excerpt of this play concluded his talk.

In the questions that followed he remarked upon the difference between the number of papers produced by male and female scientists - females produce fewer but they are more often cited. He also said that women were at last obtaining senior positions in academic science - something I found particularly pleasing because I certainly experienced some discrimination as a female industrial research scientist in the eighties.

He also remarked that hardship is also an incentive to succeed .

So, a fascinating talk and I was very glad that Professor Djerassi was able to make it - he has recently broken his hip and had to present his talk, without a chairman, from his seat on the stage after climbing onto the platform with the aid of crutches. He then answered yet more questions while he signed some of his books in the foyer outside - truly a dedicated communicator and inspiring polymath.

The professor's comprehensive website (see link below) provides further information on all his artistic achievements.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus!

Today is St David's day which is why Google UK has a daffodil instead of an 'l'. To celebrate all patriotic Welsh people pin a daffodil to their clothes although I think the original official emblem of Wales is the leek. However going around with a type of muddy onion attached to your lapel seems not to have caught on, probably not just because you can't get a safety pin big enough. The Welsh Prime Minister DAVID Lloyd George is supposed to have started the trend with the daffodil - a wise man since the daffodil is the only widely available flower this time of year in Wales - apart from the snow drop.

St David (the patron saint of Wales) was born in Ceredigion (Cardiganshire) and was a puritanical monk who spread Christianity through Wales, Cornwall and Brittany and other parts of Romano-Britain. To do penance he used to stand up to his neck in a cold lake - rather like standing in the water off any Welsh beach in the midsummer - always described as 'bracing' by my parents (Welsh for numbingly cold).

He founded an austere monastery in what is now the smallest city in the UK called, appropriately enough, St David's - which like much of Wales is exquisitely beautiful and until recently was regarded as so remote that two pilgrimages to St David's was thought to be equivalent to one to Rome. He died in 589 and was canonised in 1120. His exploits were reported by the historian and twelfth century travel writer Giraldus Cambrensis. Apart from causing springs to appear at will (not that impressive in most parts of wet Wales to be honest) St David's outstanding feat was to cause the ground to rise during a sermon so that he could be more easily heard...well it could have happened, although that part of Wales is not generally renowned for its seismic activity.

There are at least three variations of the name 'David' in Welsh - 'Dai', 'Dafydd' and 'Dewi'. This is fortunate and necessary because apart from it being a very common name it is the Welsh custom to call the eldest son exactly the same name as the father. So my brother's name is David Jenkins, my father's name is David Jenkins, and his father's name was David Jenkins...My brother has rather put the spanner in the works by naming his son Michael, but Michael's second name is Dafydd so maybe all is not yet lost.