Saturday, May 31, 2008

Crime Fiction Reader's new blog

Crime Fiction Reader is now making an excellent job of blogging about the Hay-on-Wye Festival for the BBC. The photos really add to her words.

Writing Cell

I have been working my socks off on a proposal recently, hence the lack of posts. But now my little project is done, at least the first draft, and so I am coming out, blinkingly, into very bright daylight - to these flowers (which appeared by magic when Hodmandod Senior returned from the shops):

I also have to report that Hodmandod Senior has installed light and power in my writing den now, and I can't wait to get out there because I have a novel in mind.

Before then, however, the floor has to be varnished, and we have to buy a table and chair. I would like it bare and cell-like - with no distractions except the birds outside.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Writing Den Progress: Ceiling complete.

A significant stage.

Today the ceiling has been fully clad. From this...

via this...

to this...

We have just had a celebratory cup of tea out there. Although it is now fully insulated (except for the door), it still feels as if it is part of the garden and very peaceful.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Tonight we went to see... Theatr Clwyd. It was magnificent. The witches spoke some of their lines in Welsh. This seemed entirely appropriate, somehow.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Two Interesting Facts

During my researches today I discovered a couple of interesting facts.

1. A freemartin is a sterile female cow. It arises because she shares a womb with a twin brother. The membranes that surround them fuse sometime during gestation and their blood supplies mix. This brings hormones and cells from the immune system in contact with each other so that the female becomes male; but not, interestingly, the other way around. They can also take each other's skin grafts.

2. Going 'on the wagon' meaning refraining from taking alcoholic drink arises from the last wagon ride made by condemned prisoners from the prison in Newgate to the gallows at Tyburn. By tradition the convicts were allowed into a tavern for a last drink while the driver stayed behind 'on the wagon' and was not invited to inside to partake.

There was something else too, but I can't remember what it is. This is happening more and more frequently. Hodmandod Senior says it is due to lack of sleep. I hope he's right.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sharper Senses.

Some days my senses seem sharper. It seems as though something has been stripped away and everything is brighter, louder, and, unfortunately, smellier.

Today, for instance, I was forced, by Hodmandod Minor's grumblings, to leave my research and go to Tesco. I plugged in my ipod as consolation and consequently felt detached from everything around me and maybe it was because of this that my sense of smell seemed heightened. Each rack of shelves seemed to have its own piquancy: the flowers by the door, the fruit and vegetables around the corner, and then the smell of fabrics where the clothes were stashed on racks. I am sure I could have shut my eyes and listed the fibres in front of me: the teased-out bolls of plants, the cocoons of worms, the extrusions of petrochemicals. Then, after that, it seemed to me I could smell hardware: metal, pottery, plastic, but all of this was soon overpowered as I approached the bread and then the meats and the fish.

But there was another smell too, underneath all the rest like the rumbling of a large-bellied drum you barely hear and yet know is there; it was as if something had died and had been secreted away. It was pervasive and seemed to billow up from my ankles; a decaying, rotting smell, seeping into my memory.

Then tonight, at dusk, I went out to post a letter with Hodmandod Senior, and a blackbird was sitting on a chimney pot singing a chorus for the coming of night: strident, loud, giving each note a fierce deliberation. And then , at the corner of our road, was something that has always been there, but I hadn't really noticed before: a telegraph pole, its wires radiating out, each one black and perfect like the spokes of an unfinished spider's web. For a few minutes we stopped and looked at it, noting the way the steps begin half way up the pole. It is a defence against the casual climber and the wilfully bored - like the way the leaves of a holly bush go from smooth to sharp.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Stimulate the phagocytes.

Macrophages, eh, what would we do without them? Die very quickly, apparently - in fact very soon after we drew in our first microbe-laden breath, or gulped down our first taste of not-entirely-sterile mothers' milk.

Macrophages are my latest obsession. If you look here (a film by Judith Behnsen, Priyanka Narang, Mike Hasenberg, Frank Gunzer, Ursula Bilitewski, Nina Klippel, Manfred Rohde, Matthias Brock, Axel A. Brakhage, Matthias Gunzer) you can see them in action. Usually they lurk in tissues quietly supping at whatever is around them, but then, when aroused by chemical signals of nearby microbe carnage, they become greedy - gulping voraciously at whatever comes their way... In the movie you can see them suddenly change as they are activated by being washed with a chemical, then start to swallow the orange bacteria. I find this as exciting as any Hollywood record-breaking block-buster.

Today I have been reading the Doctor's Dilemma by George Bernard Shaw. He seemed to understand a thing or two about macrophages (although he called them phagocytes) - which I think is impressive.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Blogging Interrupted (perhaps).

Well, I still can't open blogger comments, and yet I can (obviously) write new posts. Very odd. Posts about to be temporarily curtailed in any case - unless I can crank up my father's computer. On Monday he is having a pace-maker fitted and I am going to spend the next week looking after him.

I shall, of course, be taking my books with me in the hope I get the chance to look at them.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Blogger comments

I can't seem to open blogger comments - very strange.

Excellent Newsbiscuit this morning.

I am a big fan of Newsbiscuit - very often it makes me laugh out loud. This one, however, I thought particularly good - even though it just made me smile ruefully.

Friday, May 09, 2008

May 9th 2008

Today my son comes back to the car with his hair newly cut after two years of letting it grow long, and he looks so much like his uncle that I call him Huw, and keep calling him Huw, and it doesn't matter how many times I tell myself this is impossible, when I catch a glimpse of him I still have a fleeting impression that he is Huw, then realise again that he is not. It is like waking from a dream.

They look alike I tell Hodmandod Senior, but he doesn't agree. We compare photos - different eyes, he says, different nose, different everything... But the sum of the parts is somehow still the same to my obstinate brain, and I am glad that something, even if it is just this, lives on.

Writing Den Progress: Wall 3

Last night Hodmandod Senior finished attaching the third wall...

That's MY frock...!

As Keeper of the Snails this dress should obviously have gone to me...

(post script: Oh no - just opened the dress link again and my eyes were assailed by a woman's naked torso. That wasn't there before! Just look at the dress, please...just look at the dress...)

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Almost Friday, which means it is time for Oddbox news and Dominic Byrne...

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Inside my handbag.

Susan and Debra have recently discussed their wallets which I find interesting. Debra goes for the minimalist approach; while Susan prefers something more substantial. Since I am a British female I do not have a wallet but a 'purse':

which of course reflects my life, and how I spend my days, with its assortment of cards from three libraries, one bookshop, the Society of Authors, the National Trust and English Heritage... as well as the usual ones from shops and banks.

My purse is invariably contained within my 'handbag' (although it doesn't fit inside my hand, but hangs from its strap from my shoulder), together with my ipod, my phone, my filofax, several (breeding) pens and pencils, a comb and a fob of keys.

Here is my life. My ipod makes my many long journeys bearable and lulls me to sleep in strange hotel rooms, my phone is an emergency-only device, infrequently used, my filofax and pens are for notes, and the keys mean that I live in a place that has to be locked and I have access to a car. In a few years all this might change. The purse, filofax, ipod and phone will go and there will be a superkindle sort of device which does everything...

...or maybe I will carry just a chip inside my head, and just by thinking I shall be able to summon up purchases, words, addresses, music and knowledge. My front door will open as I see it - as a sensor latches on and recognises my retina. I will walk just for exercise and travel will be an unnecessary luxury. Because by then we will be living communally, utterly inside each others' heads. There will an incessant noise of chatter and music - and people will pay for quiet and the chance to be alone and think.

Sometimes when I look at people talking on their mobiles as they walk along the street it seems to me that we are halfway there already. Some of us have stopped living in the place where we happen to be, but are constantly yearning to be somewhere else, next to some other person that is never the one beside us.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Writing Den Progress: Wall 2 and lighting circuit

Much progress yesterday: two walls are now lined and insulated,

and tonight Hodmandod Senior has just wired the light-switch in place.

Monday, May 05, 2008

And look at this!

And here is Esquel, an eight hours bus drive to the west from that small green splinter. Click on the 'View Larger Map' and you can see both.

View Larger Map

The country in between is a semi-desert scrub. There are small wizened bushes, and the wind carves the rocks of the steep-sided gorges into strange shapes and lone, dramatic boulders.

The bus was old, the front window pocked where stones had hit and the seats loose in their housing, tipping with every bump in the road - and there were several. The driver swerved to avoid the larger ones. Once or twice the bus would slow and someone would yell at me in Spanish. I think they wanted me to take pictures, so I did, but they've come out badly because my hands weren't steady.

Once we followed a small river that bifurcated and then joined again, and on these tiny islands were small flat incongruous-looking meadows.

Eventually it grew night, and from time to time the bus would would be waved down by people with lights. They seemed to come from nowhere. All around us was complete and empty darkness, not a settlement in sight, and I wondered how long they had been waiting by that ill-kept road. It was the only one for miles, the only connection between one side of Patagonia to the other, and this bus its lonely customer.

Look at this!

View Larger Map

That gash of emerald green is the Chubut Valley in Patagonia, and Gaiman is one of the small Welsh-speaking towns near the Atlantic coast. When the Welsh got there in 1865 it was all desert (like the land around it still is now) but then, due to a woman called Hannah Jenkins, they managed to irrigate the narrow valley floor, and as a result grew bumper crops. I am astonished at how vividly this can be seen on google maps.

Ash-storm in Esquel, Patagonia.

Four years ago I was in Esquel in Patagonia. It's a cold, brightly lit place in May. Chile is nearby, a mere sliver of land at this latitude, that separates the south Pacific from the rest of South America.

From the town of Esquel, which is high in the foothills of the Andes, I took this small steam train, the Old Patagonian Express, into the mountains. There are not many visitors to Patagonia in May and the train was almost empty. I shared my carriage with handful of locals including a young Mapuche couple who sat beside an old stove; she sang songs while he played the guitar.

Half-way up they revealed their baby. I remember its wide black eyes as it was passed around the passengers. Eventually we stopped by a group of exposed huts surrounded by scrappy bushes and fences. It was a barren-looking place, above the tree-line, and immediately more Mapuches appeared at the track-side to sell jewelry, bits of leather and food.

The reason I'm remembering all this now is that today I learnt that Esquel is covered in volcanic dust. Here is a picture I found on Yahoo, taken on May 2nd, which is free to use.

I think the building on the left is the bus station where I caught a bus to complete my journey to the airport to the north. It seems like it was another person who made that journey now. So much has happened since, and so much has changed.

I remember asking if there were earthquakes in this part of Patagonia and I was told no, but last Thursday night a long-dormant volcano in Chile just 50 km away suddenly erupted and the earth trembled for some hours. So now the very young and the old are being evacuated from the town called Chaitén, which lies in the volcano's shadow. It is a remote area, and the evacuation is being done by boats because there are few roads, while just a few miles away, in another world east of the Andes, is falling a fine, suffocating, dry snow.

Writing Den update

Work has been proceeding at a snail's pace (heh) due to the weather and Hodmandod Senior being engaged in too many long conversations with (or, more accurately, long monologues from) 'the customer'. However some of the lagging has now been attached to part of a wall,

and the electrical socket wired in and one of the panels attached and it is all looking promising.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Paris (part 2).

The Pasteur Institute, just five minutes walk from the Hotel Yllen Eiffel, stretches back from both sides of la rue du Docteur Roux. It consists of old buildings and newer, more efficient, structures. Here is the library where Louis Pasteur and a lot of other eminent microbiologists have worked and continue to work.

It was here where we retreated on the first evening and were served wine and an assortment of the best hors d'ouvres I have ever tasted. They were so exquisitely presented - little cakes and little pots - that I had to restrain myself and not eat too many.

The lectures continued the next day on a variety of topics; all of them interesting but some I found so difficult, I had to resort to just making note of the papers. One of my favourite was on the evolutionary origin of nucleated a cells (non-nucleated cells combining). The speakers were obviously hugely enthusiastic about their subjects and each half hour was packed with exciting information.

Then, on the Tuesday evening, after a film showing early footage of microscopy taken at the Institute we were taken by bus to the nearby Invalides and the remains of Napoleon

in a tomb of various marbles, coffin within coffin, ebony, oak, mahogany, tin, until, eventually the red marble of something close (but not actually) porphyry - the traditional material for the tombs of emperors of the Roman Empire. I wondered at the space and richness, but a Frenchman that was walking alongside me declared it to be overdone, too ornate, and I guess it was, but only as much as all nineteenth century artifacts seem overdone - more is... more.

And everywhere there was Napoleon: in statues, friezes, even in glass cabinets containing his clothes.

His spirit was still there, watching over his beloved France and seeing all was well - even while we ate

our magnificent feast underneath crystal chandeliers, he was there - silhouetted on his balcony in front of his gold-leafed dome which burned bright as if on fire.

Gourmet food, wonderful wines and great conversations - I have never felt so privileged.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Paris (part 1)

The Hotel Yllen Eiffel does indeed have a view of the tower if you lean out of the window. 'Une vue spectaculaire!' as one passer-by sarcastically said, when he saw me taking this photo. We exchanged grins.

It is also built above a constantly rumbling Metro and beside a self-important crossroads, but then all crossroads in Paris seem to be busy, and all their little motorcycles seem to buzz around like very loud and angry wasps, and even though my room was directly above the canopy to the left, I slept quite well. In the early hours even Paris sleeps, and the rumble of the underground acquires the comforting familiarity of thunder, and I was grateful to hear it.

Since I arrived early (having set off for the airport at 5.00 am) I decided to dump my stuff in my hotel room and head off into town, towards the tower. Like most streets of cities those of Paris are fairly dingy with a ubiquitous pale stone or rendering. There were some I found interesting though,
like this tall triangular structure which seemed to be a remnant of something larger,

and the contents of some of the windows caught my attention (like these poor escargots spotted in a shop selling culinary delicacies)

then, as I reached the wealthier parts, there were boulevards of chestnuts and lilac,

and a park with more exotic-looking flowers, apparently shifting in the breeze, but which on closer inspection turned out to be a party of schoolchildren with identical orange hats, oddly quiet, clustering for food on the banks of a park.

And then, of course, there was this:

La Tour Eiffel. In the night I would glimpse it lit in a spectacular laser display that throbbed as much as the pictures of microbes I'd see in a lecture mid-afternoon. And from underneath it seemed creature-like too; its ladders and struts, boards and reinforcing rods, like cilia, and the sometimes geometric outlines of cells.