Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Short Intermission

Everything is quiet - just the fan on my old computer is thrumming to itself, sometimes making strange electronic hiccups as it encounters something coming in from the web. It is quarter past ten as I write this and the sky is still quite bright. Near the horizon the sky goes from a dark eggshell-blue to a faint pink and in the distance a red light burns indicating the top of a cooling tower. Nothing moves. Not even the twigs on trees.

Time to creep away now. There is food in the fridge and I've just finished piling freshly laundered clothes into drawers and cupboards. Tomorrow I shall take the train to Leicester.

The Pride

Shameless has released some more magnificent beasts for anyone wishing to join the pride. Details are here.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Whatever Happened to the Polymaths: A Royal Institution Lecture.

For over a week now I have been promising myself that I shall write a short account of the debate on 'Whatever happened to the Polymaths' at the Royal Institution. The Royal Institution has a building of its own but this is undergoing refurbishment so the lecture took place at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Fields. I'd not been there before and it is a rather impressive-looking place arranged around a square of garden (as many places in north central London are) but here. on each side, were a rather impressive range of buildings...

The Royal College of Surgeons, in contrast was disappointing

although it was reassuring to see that my car was waiting for me outside to whisk me off just as soon as it had finished (ha!).

Anyway, enough of the setting. Down to the meat of the debate. The panel comprised of Oliver Morton, Andrew Robinson (specialising in Thomas Young), John Whitfield (specialising in D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson) and the chair Gill Sam (apologies if that name is wrong) - who introduced Oliver Morton as the author of 'Wapping Wars' (in fact he had written 'Mapping Mars' - which amused everyone when he indignantly pointed this out).

The following points were made although these are not in the order they were discussed.

Defining the polymath

According to Oliver Morton this was someone who makes a contribution to four distinct areas of knowledge at a professional level. Whereas John Whitfiield thought a contribution to more than one field was sufficient. Andrew Robinson thought they should have knowledge over a broad range of fields.

Someone from the floor asked if non-arts subjects should be included and the general conclusion was that they should in which case HG Wells, Bertrand Russell, Arthur C Clarke, Jonathan Miller, Melvyn Bragg, James Joyce and Winston Churchill should be included as polymaths.

The Genius of the Polymath - making transitions between disciplines

Polymaths tend to be interested in applying what they know from one field into another. For instance knowledge of fluid mechanics can lead to new ideas on circulation and the heart; and chemical notation could be applied to decoding the Rosetta stone.

Andrew Robinson pointed out that Thomas Young applied linguistics to maths and biology but stuck with just those fields and it is rare to find polymaths in many different fields.

John Whitfield pointed out that D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson had gone from physics to biology (Frances Crick made a similar transition) and was able to apply laws in physics to biological systems. Laws that govern particles in a gas, for instance, can be applied to populations of animals. Some subjects do certainly blend together well; (maths and music is another. It is as though we use the same parts of our brain even though they do not seem to be obviously connected).

The Era of the Polymath

Before the twentieth century there was a more romantic view of science. Scientists were self-financed men of leisure who could afford to play at what they wished and thereby made discoveries. However in the twenty-first century scientists have to specialise and work in institutions. This means there is less opportunity to be a polymath because it is now very difficult for individuals to acquire the intellectual and physical skills they need to excel in many domains.

For instance it was pointed out that only about four people in the world can understand all the papers in the back of the journal Nature because the language and expertise has become so specialised. It is also much more difficult to make great contributions in both sciences and the arts than it was in say, Leonardo daVinci's day.

(It was here, dear reader (if you exist) that I asked MY QUESTION (a big moment - very daring). I have noticed from my reading that quite often it is by taking ideas from one domain into another that big changes in paradigms seem to occur. Quite often it is the people who come from outside the discipline (ie the polymaths) and look at things in a different way who question and cause revolutions in science. I wondered if we might be losing this potential if scientists are forced to specialise and are no longer able to broaden their knowledge of different fields. Perhaps I didn't ask my question very well because Oliver Morton said he didn't agree with my premise and did not agree that my example (Alfred Wegener of course) was a polymath either - but I remain convinced that he was...explorer, cartographer, meteorologist, glaciologist, cosmologist, geologist...but I'm not very good at arguing).

Science and Institutions.
Because of the expansion of knowledge it is very difficult for a single person to have great knowledge in many different fields. Instead we have teams of different people with different expertise. This means that science these days is not about individuals but about teams of people. The most fertile areas are at the interfaces and it is by argument and discussion that science progresses.

Science, Polymaths and Progress

Some members of the floor thought that science had been less productive in the last ten years because of the death of the polymath. However this was not blamed on the arrival of the institute but the stifling effect of too much health and safety. Scientists can no longer explore different fields and cannot take physical risks and scientific progress suffers because of this. Another person from the floor blamed changes in social values -- in particular the death of societies and clubs and the loss of a valuable opportunity to share ideas.

And with that I had to creep out and dash up Southampton Row to catch the last train for Chester - which was a bit of a shame because I'd have loved to stay until the end. But it was a very interesting debate and I was glad I went - and intend to do the same thing again sometime.

Shameless's Literary Lions: No 22. CARADOC


Oh look, I glitter. In a warm sun I glint
icicles and diamonds
my wealth dripping from me
then swept away in the wind.
Some say I am king.
But not yet.

One day...

One day I shall roar my words
and all the world will listen.

For more Literary Lions go here.

Three Black Crows

In my story called Eczema in Loggorhea I describe three black crows:
'They were silent, hooded as usual in their black scarves and cloaks, their faces hidden in shadow...'

and was surprised to see them exactly how I imagined them in today's Telegraph. They looked so weirdly familiar that I took a quick sketch (actually they are part of a display by Philip Jackson and are called 'Cloister Conspiracy' and are on display with several other bronze statues in the Catto Gallery, London. Next time I go down there I must take a look). Very spooky.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Wittgenstein, Jarman and Colour Blindness

Tonight we watched Wittgenstein directed by Derek Jarman in 1993. It was like watching a play - lots of ideas thrown out of the screen one after the other. No great stage set - just a darkened room and then something like a bed, or a blackboard and a set of deckchairs or a hospital bed.

According to the producer, Tariq Ali, the low budget enhanced the creativity of the film. I think it also enhances the creativity of the viewer. There is so little there that each individual mind is free to invent and the experience is richer for this. It is like the sort of writing I love - the starkest skeleton. But it is something each person watching can clothe exactly as they please.

Wittgenstien was interested in language and how it describes the world around us. How can we know what is really outside our heads? How can we know that the world that each of us manufactures is anything like reality?

Hodmandod Senior is colour blind. This is fascinating to me. It is something I discovered soon after we were married - for the first 24 years of his life he had no idea that saw fewer colours than most of the rest of humanity. I keep testing him. Even now, 24 years later. 'What colour is that car?' I ask, pointing to one that to me seems obviously green. 'Silvery,' he says, 'kind of grey.'

In this one way the worlds we see are obviously different. And then of course there are our different positions and the different things we notice. He'll notice a bird trapped in the supermarket, flitting from aisle to aisle; while I'll notice the logo on a child's T shirt. Even though we walk side by side the world we experience is completely different.

In this film on Wittgenstein I think, at one stage, he talks about language inventing our worlds. But I think language is only the start. It too is a skeleton waiting to be dressed. Some of us use the bright colours of this film; others prefer more subtle shades and nuances.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

An Apology

I am afraid I am getting a little behind with my trips onto blogosphere. I am trying to catch up, a couple of blogs at a time, but some I haven't seen for days. I am sorry - I am sure I am missing so many interesting posts.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Northern Launch of The Flash

On Friday was the northern launch of THE FLASH - 100 writers and 100 stories in 205 small pages - all proceeds to Amnesty International.

It was a good summery evening in Manchester. The second floor of the Cornerhouse packed with a lively and very appreciative crowd

who listened to the poet Robert Sheppard (on the right in this picture) reading THE NOVEL (a particularly fine surreal piece on that thing that is supposed to lurk inside each one of us); Nick Royle (left - who has written five novels and a collection of short stories) reading a clever story called MATHS TOWER about a famous landmark in Manchester which has recently been demolished and which I know struck a chord with at least two members of the audience who have spent some time studying in there (Hodmandod Major (middle) and his friends Angie and Danny);

Conrad Williams (who I didn't manage to photograph) who took us into a hot Spanish summer with his story The Hoopoe and then into the haunting world of Jeff VanderMeer's MAGICIAN

while the SF writer Richard Evans (pictured here with his wife Sarah) read HALF LIFE - a thought provoking and effective piece on the perils of aging (or not)

which resonated well with Nicola Mostyn's (on the left, above) SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE FEELING - an exploration of emotion, and well worth reading - and Pete Wild's (on the right) THE CONTINUING ADVENTURES OF POOT MAN - an entertaining story on the adventures of a superhero (which ends 'to be continued' and I hope it does.

Other pieces were read out too - Patricia Dunker's THE KISS, Stella Duffy's GARDENING, Rhonda Carrier's THIS IS HOW THE STORY ENDS, Michel Faber's £17.07, 8.30, Matt Haig's INSTRUCTIONS FOR MY FUNERAL - all excellent stories.

While I read out two of my favourites: Sara Gran's SOME LITTLE KNOWN FACTS ABOUT THE NEW YORK SUBWAY SYSTEM and Matthew Cheney's THE VOICE both of which I love more and more each time I read them.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Foundling Museum

It was a grey day in London yesterday, with a splattering of rain and that temperature which is fine when you're moving but cold as soon as you stand still. But I didn't stand still. I didn't stop. I had no clear idea where I was going but I ended up here, at the Foundling Museum on Brunswick Street.

1720s London sounds a squalid place. Children were commonly left on doorsteps of churches and other buildings by parents who could not afford to keep them. Many of them died. The sight of this disgusted three childless men so much that they decided to do something about it. They were an illustrious trio: a sea captain called Thomas Coram,

the artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frederick Handel.

Whereas other cities in europe had homes for foundlings, London did not. It was thought that by having a hospital for foundlings society would be seen to be condoning loose morals; because most of the children were born to unmarried mothers.

Conram faced a long campaign. It took him 17 years to establish the Hospital, but once the Hospital was started he was almost immediately ousted by a committee coup. I keep wondering what he felt about this - doing all that work and then not having much to do with his great accomplishment.

It was a secular independent charity - the first time such an institution had ever been established. One of its greatest innovations was to invite Hogarth to display his pictures there which encouraged other artists and it subsequently became the first public gallery in London. Another benefactor was Handel who donated an organ to the chapel and conducted recitals there.

The original premises are demolished now but this building, which is close to the site, has been renovated to include reconstructions of many of the original rooms including the committee room where mothers waited to see if their child would be admitted. Because demand outstripped available places the children were chosen by lottery. A while ball and the child would be admitted (if found to be healthy); a black and the child would be turned away; a red and the child had another chance.

Life in the Hospital seems to have been austere but fair. The children were sent out to wet nurses until aged about three or five (thus getting lots of the human comfort Dr Perry recommends) then admitted into the hospital again - heads shorn and uniforms issued - until they left to go into service if they were girls and into apprenticeships of the forces if boys. Not one child rose to any great eminence, but they seemed to have taken useful roles in the community.

In the exhibition on the ground floor were menus, examples of the brown and white uniforms (indicating their future professions), and verbal witness accounts of life in the orphanage - the last foundling children were admitted in the 1930s.

Upstairs were the galleries and then on the top floor a room devoted to Handel. It was this room I liked the best. It had several leather chairs with Handel's music piped into the wings. When I got there the room was empty and the blinds over the window gave the place the subdued light of evening. I chose the chair that said 'oratorios' and flicked through a few until I got to the Messiah. Then I shut my eyes and after a few minutes dozed off like an old woman. My only excuse is that I have been a bit short of sleep recently - sometimes it seems like the bottom is falling out of my world. But while I listened to the more optimistic parts of the Messiah promising a great redeemer everything else seemed to drift away and I felt anything could happen if I tried hard enough. Then I thought again of Conram, and hoped that he died happy - he had, after all accomplished what he set out to do. This, is the end, must be all that matters - the trying rather than the success, the doing of it all rather than any glory.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

THE BOY WHO WAS RAISED AS A DOG by Bruce D Perry and Maia Szalavitz

For a short time in my life I was a science teacher. Some of the classes I used to take had quite a sizeable proportion of children with EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties). These children were difficult to engage in a class of over thirty others and were generally distracted by the trappings of a chemical laboratory.

I had trained for eighteen months to be a teacher but my training didn't prepare me for this. Some of my EBD pupils could not sit still, others found it difficult to keep quiet, others seemed to be deliberately wilful, some would not look you in the eye, others would ape around and continually act the fool. Each one was a challenge, but my biggest challenge was a boy whom I shall call Steve. Steve had such severe emotional and behavioural problems that he had not gone to mainstream school before and was starting secondary school as an experiment to see if he could cope. He couldn't. Unfortunately he was assigned to my tutor group. Not a wise decision on someone's part. I had only just qualified as a teacher and although I was enthusiastic I was, of course, inexperienced.

Poor Steve. His reputation came before him. His older brother had just left the school and that young man had spent his entire five years sitting at the edge of the classroom refusing to engage with anyone. Steve was worse. He was, apparently, 'a very naughty boy' and we all looked forward to his arrival with some apprehension.

In the end he came in like a clown, a rather handsome one, a great floppy grin and a loose uncontrolled walk. I greeted him and his grin spread further - like a liquid in the way it seemed to flow across his face. He didn't say anything, just looked at me vacantly when I showed him where to sit - next to some of the more mature and sympathetic members of the class - who regarded him with consternation. I hoped they would take him under their wing but they didn't. They just moved as far away as they could. For a few minutes the classroom went quiet as if they were all waiting for something to happen but nothing did. Steve just sat there and grinned so I went back to my register and continued to call out names.

Somehow Steve managed to scatter people. It was as if he took up too much room with his chaotic movements. No one could tell where one long arm or leg would fall - and neither could he. Chairs fell over and he would look at them stupidly, books would slide from the bench, taps would turn themselves on when he accidentally nudged them - and words would drop from his mouth: sometimes uselessly, sometimes provocatively or rudely, and always inappropriately.

He stayed less than a year; throughout that time he was in and out of some senior teacher's office for some small offence or other. After a few weeks I hardly saw him even though I was supposed to be his tutor.

His final misdemeanor, and the one which got him sent back to 'the unit', was that he was caught teaching a recent emigré all the bad language that he knew.

I thought of Steve today as I read this book: THE BOY WHO WAS RAISED AS A DOG. It is one of the most interesting. moving and inspiring books I've ever read. The author, Dr Bruce D Perry, is a child psychiatrist, and in the book he describes his cases. He explains exactly why children who have experienced trauma are damaged - how it changes the brain - and the behaviour that results. He also describes his unconventional treatment and why it works.

The infant who is deprived of touch in his early months never experiences a positive association between touch and being comforted and in consequence brain scans show that the lower part of the brain is underdeveloped. However, if the child is 'caught' early enough, it is possible using massage and music, for the child to catch up. Recovery can be incredibly fast. Within two weeks the boy of the title, who had been brought up in a cage with dogs, began to walk and talk.

The process that follows, however, is more painstaking and I imagine the therapists involved must have an incredible amount of patience. But gradually, with repetition and a lot of loving care, it is possible fror these damaged children to recover. The boy brought up as a dog eventually went to a foster home and within a few years was ready for school - whereupon he sent Dr Perry a photograph with 'Thank you Dr Perry' written on the back in crayon. Dr Perry says that upon receiving this he cried - and so did I when I read the story. When Dr Perry came across the child he was caged in his cot, smeared in faeces and so violent no one would go near him - but Dr Perry did. He could see the humanity there and seemed determined that it should come out.

As I read I kept wondering what Dr Perry would do with Steve. Like all the children in this book I am sure Steve had been damaged during infancy. In common with several parents of this school Steve's parents were drug addicts. I expect that both Steve and his brother had been left alone to fend for themselves. Steve's brother seemed to react to this by retreating into himself - a process known as dissociation. It is the way a brain reacts to stress, flooding it with natural opiates. Steve, however, reacted more flamboyantly - every social situation seemed to be a puzzle - perhaps he had never had the chance to learn important lessons from his mother's face.

It is sad that children are damaged in this way, and sad when there is nothing done to help them. Steve went back to some unit or other and I doubt very much he would have been lucky enough to receive Dr Perry's recommended treatment: holding, comforting, touching, being allowed to play and learning to trust others. Without all this Dr Perry describes the result: a boy he met in jail, a normal child brought up by a lonely and mentally inadequate mother. Out of ignorance she left the baby in his cot alone every day for his first year of life and took his older brother (who turned out just fine) for walks. After a few weeks the child stopped bothering to cry. Later in his life he related to no one, and one day lured two teenage girls into a flat where he raped and then killed them. I do hope the fate of Steve and his brother is happier than that.

The book ends lamenting the way we live today which leads to these tragedies. The rapist's normal brother owes his normality to the existence of his extended family. When the poor mother felt unable to cope there was someone to take over, but when baby number two came along her husband's job forced them to move out of the familial neighbourhood and she was unsupported. Again I can sympathise with this. When my first son was born we had just moved to a new part of the country and knew no one. Futhermore, since I have few relatives my son was the first baby I had ever held in my life, and although my sons seem to have turned out fine (well, mostly!) I wish I had read this book before attempting to rear them - I think I may have done things differently.

A fina point: apart from being hugely informative this book is also beautifully written - which is presumably due to the work of Maia Szalavitz, who is a science journalist.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Sometimes I imagine falling.
I reach out
my hands outstretched
feeling nothing but air
but in my head
the gladness of being
half way between
one state
and the next.
A forbidden transition.

Would I light up?
Maybe my beam of energy
would be so intense
and narrow
I could cut paper
or glass:
a searing line
adhering what I am now
to what I was then.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

May 9th

The day is gone - another one.
I am trying to remember
a birthday.
The one when I led you by the hand
through a jungle of weeds
and you clung to me,
your face a question.
All's well, I said,
- and held you close.
But all the time I was scared for you.
I lay awake
without reason
every fast flowing river,
every high tree.

It took less in the end
- and more.

All's well, I say now,
everything's fine.
In case you hear.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Walk Along Offa's Dyke

Once a king called Offa built a dyke. It crossed the marches into Wales from sea to sea. No one knows what it was for; was it to keep the people of Powys out or to keep his own people of Mercia in? A ridge of mud was bordered on the Welsh side by a ditch and today some of it is still visible - 80 miles of land that is oddly ridged - but most of it is worn away by plough and the trampling of hooves and feet. There is a path that follows it however, and some of it goes through land classified as an area of outstanding natural beauty, and luckily for us it is just a short drive away from our house.

Hodmandod Senior realised that he hadn't had a day off work this year (apart from public holidays and compassionate leave) so after a search on the net we decided to pay Offa's dyke a visit.

We started south of Ruthin in a village called Graig Fechan, a lane

leading onto path
where crows coughed at us from trees and many wildflowers lined the path,

and on one bank on closer inspection was a lime kiln, so old that trees had grown through the tightly assembled stones of the furnace.

After the woods came fields, and then after the fields, farms and odd walls until we suddenly emerged into a hamlet of cottages with huge pink roses flopping their already-blown heads over the gate.

Ducking behind a farm again we came across a small lake almost hidden in trees and startled sheep who ran away, the bleats indignant and their dung dried to jangling pellets on the wool of their backsides.

An old drover's road led upwards.

lined in part by bluebells, already past their best and wilting in the heat.

the meadows,

giving way to heathery fields with the remains of Neolithic burial mounds

until we reached the top and could admire the Vale of Clwyd stretching before us.

And felt very glad to be alive.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Patricia Highsmith's Hodmandod Tendencies.

A long time ago I commented on how Patricia Highsmith lovingly evoked the mating of snails in one of her short stories. I was reminded about this a few days ago when Debra sent me a link to a very interesting webpage on weird mating rituals. Dr Grump and I have spent many happy hours poring over this over the last few days and she is now thinking of writing a research paper based on the topic but extending the research to humans.
This reminded me about a book I read in the British Library recently called Asperger's Syndrome and High Achievement by Ioan James (another title which tells you all you need to know) and it was a fascinating read. One of the people mentioned was Patricia Highsmith. There were few women in the book since Asperger's is more common in males. Patricia Highsmith seems to have been sexually ambiguous and, like all the other characters in the book, highly eccentric.

People with autism usually have social, speech and language impairments. They have repetitive routines, a strange sense of humour and tend to be clumsy. They also have all-absorbing narrow interests and Patricia Highsmith seems to have developed an extreme fondness for snails. Towards the end of her life she became a recluse and visitors described how she used to carry 100 snails around with her at a time. How, it does not say. But I imagine them forming a mobile armour, their constantly shifting shells making accidental patterns on her arms, their antennae stretching out whenever they sniffed green leaf. She would have to be careful how she sat... and it would explain why the snail mating scene in her short story was so well observed and sensuous.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


I just finished my book proposal...again... and I just had to tell someone. So hello blog, I'm telling you.

('Course I got to go through it all over again, now).

Logorrhea edited by John Klima

Every year in the US there is a national spelling bee. A year or so ago John Klima, the editor of the Magazine Electric Velocipede had the excellent idea of compiling a book of short stories based on around the sometimes unusual words that have helped the young competitors win the competition - and today is the official publication date of Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories. It is published by Bantam.

Here is a (p)review from Booklist:
Capitalizing on the current spelling-bee craze, this anthology presents commissions inspired by winning words from the Scripps National Spelling Bee, thereby providing those unfamiliar with either spellings or definitions of the likes of vivisepulture, insouciant, and eudaemonic delightful opportunities to learn them. Librarian and sf zine editor Klima has corraled 21 authors, speculative-fiction luminaries ranging from Liz Williams and Michael Moorcock to Elizabeth Hand and Jay Lake. In the opening tale, "The Chiaroscurist," a painter specializing in the interplay of light and shadow shoulders an unexpected burden when he hires a gnome to model God's likeness for a planned fresco. "Logorrhea" explores the unusual relationship between a woman afflicted with compulsive verbosity and a man whose lizardlike exterior brings out her listening talents. Other entries revolve around the skin conditions eczema and psoriasis, recount the fate of a foreign-exchange expert, or cambist, and more. A treat for dictionary hounds and vocabulary-challenged word lovers everywhere.

Marly Youman's piece, The Smaragdine Knot, is in there, and having read a few of Marly's other works I am looking forward to reading this very much. Marly's writing is quite exquisite, each word just right. Whenever I start reading one of her books I feel myself relax as I open the page because I know she is going to carry me beautifully along and I am going to enjoy each moment.

However the only story I have read in the book (besides mine of course) is Jeff VanderMeer's, Appoggiatura - which reads like an epic novel in short-story form. It is a clever piece written with much verve and imagination and I highly recommend it.

The full list of contents is:

Hal Duncan - The Chiaroscurist
Liz Williams - Lyceum
David Prill - Vivisepulture
Clare Dudman - Eczema
Alex Irvine - Semaphore
Marly Youmans - The Smaragdine Knot
Michael Moorcock - A Portrait in Ivory
Daniel Abraham - The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics�
Michelle Richmond - Logorrhea
Anna Tambour - Pococurante
Tim Pratt - From Around Here
Elizabeth Hand - Vignette
Alan DeNiro - Plight of the Sycophant
Matthew Cheney - The Last Elegy
Jay Caselberg - Eudaemonic
Paolo Bacigalupi - Softer
Jay Lake - Crossing the Seven
Leslie What - Tsuris
Neil Williamson - The Euonymist
Theodora Goss - Singing of Mount Abora
Jeff VanderMeer - Appoggiatura