Monday, June 27, 2011

Authors North Summer Social 2011

The Yorkshire weather held off long enough for me to walk from Leeds station for this year's summer social. It was in the Thackray Museum of Modern Medicine - an invigorating half-hour's walk slightly up hill, excellent aerobic weight-bearing exercise - and so good for the normally desk-bound writer.

However, by the time I got close (this is the hospital chapel next door), the clouds were a-darkening and a-smouldering, so I was glad to get indoors before the deluge started. It was an interesting-looking place promising the gruesome artifacts of 'Heroic' medicine and a very suitable location for our speaker, Sue Armstrong and her talk on her book: A Matter of life and Death.

After a lunch of salmon, chicken satay and lots of other delicious things (and excellent company) we assembled in the conference room where everything was waiting. John Rice, our new committee member, gave an excellent introduction and then we got on to the main feature: Sue's talk.

The subtitle of Sue's book is 'Inside the Hidden World of the Pathologist'; a topic that I find particularly interesting because it is my brother's specialism - and I've always wondered what exactly he does.

Pathologists are important. 70% of diagnoses require the services of a pathologist, Sue pointed out; but like a lot of essential services they tend to go unnoticed and are not often mentioned. Two members of the audience came up with further examples of these after the talk: one hospital was built and it was only afterwards that they realised they hadn't included a path lab. Another audience member related how she had been seriously ill with septic shock, and it was only after the pathologist changed her antibiotic that she showed any sign of improvement.

Recently, as a result of the Alder Hey hospital scandal (when a pathologist was shown to be using children's remains for scientific research without permission), it was generally felt by the medical profession that the science of pathology had acquired an unfavourable image. Sue was commissioned to interview the profession to provide feedback.

The pathologists she interviewed were eminent and inspiring (you can see some interviews here). They included Professor Sebastian Lucas who was one of the main doctors who researched into AIDS. Dame Julia Polack who is the longest known survivor of a heart-lung transplant and when presented with her own lungs declared them to be the worst case she had ever seen.

Pathologists, Sue discovered, were not cold fish. Their voices cracked when they talked about the loss of children. Instead their knowledge made them realise the tenuous nature of life and how quickly it goes. They regard the lump of matter that is the corpse and have plenty of time to consider it - and how one day 'that is going to be me.'

She also described specific examples, which whetted my appetite to read more: the sequencing of the DNA of the 1918 flu; the man who owns a body farm which has proved so essential for forensic science; and the doctor who has done so much work out in the field as a paediatric pathologist.

The Alder Hey crisis, Sue found, had left a legacy of paperwork and restrictions. Every single specimen of any description now has to have specific permission to be used, if not it has to be discarded. As a result post mortem rates have plummeted significantly which can mean that mistakes and crimes like Harold Shipman's could go undetected. Not only that but research is restricted, which has serious implications for scientists' ability to find and treat new diseases.

As Helen Shay, who gave the vote of thanks at the end, said, it was one of the more fascinating talks we've had recently at Authors North. It is no wonder that Anna Ganley sold so many of Sue's book at the end!

By that time, those smouldering Yorkshire clouds had lost all restraint and were precipitating quite copiously, haemorrhaging rain, you might say. But I guess that would be taking things too far.

Thank you to Anna Ganley for organising things so well for us as usual, and thank you to Sue Armstrong for such an excellent talk.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Salon: A Little Eclectisim

It's been a good reading week. I've read a couple of light books (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday and Things my Girlfriend and I have Argued About by Mil Millington (though not finished this yet - though I am hugely enjoying it) which were funny in different ways.

Then I went on to the large-with-really-small-print Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories and sampled a few of those - another interesting exercise. I was interested in reading these because I wanted to find out how a typical ghost story is structured. Of course, many are completely different from each other, but I would say around the turn of the 19th and 20th century they did tend to follow a pattern. An event in the 'present' (often the presentation of an object like a mummified monkey's paw or a cigarette case) initiated a tale of something strange that happened in the past. There would then be a huge build up during which the atmosphere would become more and more disturbing, a sinister thing would happen and then there would be a swift resolution. The build-up would sometimes be very long, but the sinister happening is usually over quickly and the resolution follows immediately.

The stories in this book are arranged chronologically, and I think I will return to it later to read another few earlier and later batches. It would be interesting to see if the style evolves. I think it probably does.

And now I am reading another large book which I think probably doesn't fit into the usual reading for pleasure category: Empires of the Silk Road by Christopher I Beckwith. Although it is for the general reader, and is, I am glad to see, jargon-free, it is a fairly demanding read. Its subtitle is 'A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present'.

It is very well written, easy to understand, but the only difficulty is that it is about an area of the world that is still unfamiliar to me. Even though I have now read three different books on the Silk Road and have assiduously followed the narrative on maps, I am still finding it difficult to retain a mental picture of this area as I read. There are so many different peoples with strange names, and these names change according to the focus of the story. Invasions seem frequent, and in consequence the political map of the area seemed to change frequently too. Despite this, the information presented here fascinates me:

1. All proto-IndoEuropean people share the same 'first story' :and it went like this

Maiden impregnated with heavenly spirit or god.
Rightful king disposed unjustly.
Maiden gives best to a marvelous baby boy.
Unjust king orders baby destroyed.
Wild beast nurture boy so he survives.
Boy found in wilderness and saved.
Boy grows up to be skilled horseman and archer.
Boy is brought to court and put in subservient position.
He becomes in danger of being put to death but escapes.
He acquires a following of oath-sworn warriors (the 'comitatus').
He overthrows tyrant and establishes order and justice.
He founds a new city or dynasty.

Now I found this very interesting, because it has long fascinated me that so many myths and legends among different peoples are the same. Many, for instance, have a story about a great flood. I have heard this explained as some sort of collective memory about the end of the ice age and the sea-levels rising.

There are elements of this first story in the stories of non-IndoEuropean cultures too. For example the early hero of Tehuelche culture is nurtured by a field-mouse and a swan, and is the result of an earthly and spiritual union. Is this due to sharing the same 'first story' before their ancestors began the migration over the Bering Strait, or is it something hard-wired into our heads - a story that automatically occurs to all people? Or maybe it has been re-interpreted by Westerners before being recorded. Or maybe it is just one big coincidence.

2. The 'comitatus' is known throughout the Eurasian land mass from the Vikings in Scandinavia to early dynastic Japanese (but not in classical Greece or China).

This band of brothers would swear allegiance to their leader, often by making blood oaths. They would then become closer than family, sacrificing their lives for their leader, not only on battlefield but when the leader died. They would commit suicide to enter paradise alongside him and their tombs (often a large earthen tumulus) would be lined with the splendours of their courtly lives: great silken brocades interwoven with gold and embroidered with gems, and each corpse 'armed to the teeth' ready to defend their leader again in the after-world. Maybe urban gangs and terrorist groups are the comitatus of today.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Some English Ghost Stories part 2 (contains spoilers)

The Empty House by Algernon Blackwood (1906).
The two protagonists, Blackwood, and his elderly aunt, deliberately enter the empty house in search of ghosts. They search through each room (it is, of course dark and there are the usual candles and shadows and noises). The first encounter is a man's cough just as they step inside the front door - but the cougher is nowhere to be seen. After that there are further sightings: once the figure of a woman in the shadows, and then another time a face peers closely into Blackwoods. The most impressive part of the hauntings, however, are the noises on the floor above. The ghost goes from room to room, obviously searching. The aunt is terrified, so terrified, in fact, that her face becomes young again.

The climax to the story comes as they are ascending the stairs towards the noise. There are screams and the sound of two people hurtling down it, the one giving chase much heavier than the first. They sweep past them but their candle does not flicker. There are more screams in a downstairs room, and then the sound of someone throwing another over the stairs and that person landing on the hall floor below.

The aunt and nephew then escape through the front door, followed all the time by someone they don't dare turn around to see.

The Cigarette Case by Oliver Onions. (1911)
The story is introduced by the offer of a cigarette case. This reminds a man called Loder of something that happened in his youth. He was on holiday with a man called Carroll in Provence. There is a long lead up to the two of them going on a walk in a village. They discover an English aunt and niece walking in front of them. They talk, and are invited to the Englishwomen's house for a cigarette. They have a wonderful hour and then leave. When they tell the man they are staying with about this he denies there is such a house in the village. The next morning Loder finds he has lost his cigarette case, so the Frenchman takes them back to call at the house, but they can't find it. As a joke he shows them and old delapidated place which shares some of the features. They go in and realise it is the same place. There is no explanation.

Rose Rose by Barry Pain (1911).
An artist paints a model. She leaves for the night. The next morning, knowing she is often unreliable he arrives at his studio early and leaves the door open while he fetches cigarettes and a paper. To his surprise, Rose Rose is already waiting for him. He paints for an hour and is interrupted by the feeling someone has touched the back of his neck. When he looks back to the model she is gone. He then realises that she can never have been there because the door is locked. He decides he has been working too hard, and then discovers that Rose Rose died in a motor accident the night before. He then changes character, moves studios and becomes isolated. When a friend calls on him he tells him to come back in an hour. The friend decides to leave him alone.

The final paragraph relates how he later commits suicide and leaves a blank canvass with the message 'I have finished it but I can't stand it any more.'

The Confession of Charles Linkworth by E.F. Benson (1912)
A man who murdered his mother (the lead-up to the crime is fully described, which is interesting in itself) is found guilty and hanged. He does not confess, even though he is given ample opportunity. The next day the doctor of the prison (who is not only a man of independent means but of a 'sensitive' (to the supernatural) nature) hears a phone ring faintly in his house. When he lifts the receiver he hears faint whispers. When he rings the operator and asks to be put through to the number that has just rung him, he reaches the prison and the warden answers. No one has used the phone all night. The next day, back at work, becomes aware of a presence in the suite of rooms where the man was hanged (including a hanging man, dimly lit). The warden also confirms he was aware of a presence. The doctor tells the warden to give the ghost ample opportunity to use the phone tonight. That evening the ghost, who is indeed the murderer, says he needs to speak to the chaplain. The next night, after some convincing, the chaplain speaks to the ghost on the phone, but since the chaplain still believes it is a hoax, the doctor asks the ghost to provide evidence. The ghost duly appears in front of them (suitably described). Tha chaplain, now convinced, absolves him of sin. The ghost vanishes leaving the rope on the carpet. In a nice touch, the servant, when asked to pick up the rope, cannot see it.

On the Brighton Road by Richard Middleton (1912).
A tramp wakes along a frosty roadside. He is making for Brighton. He comes across a boy. The boy is on the road too, and has been for six years. When the tramps remarks that he could have died sleeping in the cold last night, the boy asks how does he know that he didn't? The boy then says how he has died several times but returns each times as a tramp. The boy eventually becomes ill and a motorist, who turns out to be a doctor, declares he has pneumonia and takes him to hospital. The man carries on alone. Later, after sleeping in a haystack, the boy catches up with him. When the tramp asks him about the pneumonia he says he died of it that morning.

Bone to his Bone by E.G. Swain (1912).
The writing in this story is particularly elegant and smooth. A vicar leaves a library to his successors in the vicarage 'forever'. One of these successors, 150 years later, loves this library of books so much that he sleeps in an adjoining room. Visitors in the other adjoining room often think they hear the vicar wandering around in the library at night, but the vicar puts the sounds down to 'something' wrong with the windows, furniture and so on. One Christams eve, when he can't sleep, the vicar wanders into the library to read. Someone hands him the matches in mid air. He finds one book 'The compleat gardn'er' open on the stand. He follows instructions revealed by odd sentences in the book telling him to go outside and dig by the Ilex. By the Ilex he finds a spade, which refuses to budge until he is determined to dig with it. Digging reveals a human radius. He reburies the radius in consecrated ground, returns to the library to find the book back on it shelf.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Some English Ghost Stories part 1 (contains spoilers)

I have decided to read a few ghost stories, and since the Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (bought many years ago) has just resurfaced on one of my bookshelves, I've been having a look at a few of these. I'm devoting my little study to the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.
The Friend of the Friends by Henry James (1896).

The story is introduced by a man who has sorted through the papers of a woman (who has recently died) looking for publishable material. He hasn't found any because he says, although she writes well, she is too indiscreet. He presents the ghost story as evidence.

The story comes in parts. In the first part is described how a young woman acquaintance of the would-be author sees her father just as he is about to die although the father is hundreds of miles away. The second part relates how the author also knows a young man whose mother appeared to him in similar circumstances. She then points out that the two share many similarities and wants them both to meet but this never happens. The next part describes how they never meet. In the next section the man proposes to the narrator and in consequence she becomes determined that they should meet. The female ghost-viewer then comes round to the woman's house at an arranged time to see the man, but he does not turn up. She does, however, see his picture and his address is on the back. The female ghost-viewer then dies. The finance then admits to having seen the woman after all - on the night she died. The narrator then becomes convinced, rightly so, that the man has fallen in love with the ghost and that he sees her regularly each night. The marriage is called off and six years later he also dies - for no good reason, except, perhaps, to be with her.

The story evolves very slowly, and there is a feeling of distance from the protagonists - and yet some of it is quite passionately conveyed.

The Red Room by H.G. Wells (1896).

A man of 28 declares (to three old people) he has never seen a ghost, and that he is prepared to sleep over night in the Red Room, which is haunted. The three old people have a decayed and sinister character. The room is along a convoluted way and shadows and sounds play an important role and contribute to the build up of atmosphere.

When he is about to enter the room there is reference to 'something' his predecessor found. Then a revelation that this person had also died after seeing something and falling down the stairs. There is also reference to earlier hauntings.

He searches the room which also causes the atmosphere to build. The shadows cause him to imagine the presence of something. He lights more candles - but still a brooding atmosphere. Candles then start to go out and difficult to relight. They then go out as he watched - as if nipped out. Fight between candles going out and lighting them. Frantic at horror of darkness.

He then falls and only light left is the fire. This is then quenched. He then screams and runs to the door. However he can't find the door, batters himself before being hit on the head.

He wakes in daylight with his head being bandaged by an old man. He can't remember at first where he is, then after he does has to agree the room is haunted. They ask him who is the ghost - and he answers 'Fear'.

The Monkey's Paw by W. W. Jacobs (1902).

This, I would say, is a perfect ghost story.

A happy family scene - father, mother and son - is established at the start. They receive a visitor. The visitor tells them about the monkey's paw and warns them not to use it. The father does anyway in the midst of much hilarity. He wishes for £200. Atmosphere builds using shadows, weather etc. Next day all seems well and they laugh at their terror. Son goes off to work. Later a stranger comes to the house and tells them the son is dead, having been caught in machinery. They are offered £200 compensation. Post-burial, the wife realises they have two wishes left. She begs the father to wish his son alive again. This he eventually does. That night comes knocking at the door. The woman is about to answer when the father makes his last wish and the banging stops. The lane is empty.

The Lost Ghost by Mary E Wilkins (1903).

A woman visits her friend with gossip. A house has been vacated. This leads to one of the friends describing an incident in her own past when she lodged in a haunted house and so has every sympathy. The haunting was in the form of a small child with a pale face but a purple body inside a white trailing night gown, and only ever spoke to say 'I can't find my mother.'. The ghost was a helpful one: gathering wood, picking out raisins, picking up clothes, drying the dishes but even so the lodger and the two women (one a spinster, the other a childless widow) who were renting out the room hated her visitations.

The ghost was of a child who had died in the house a couple of years before, having been abandoned by her flighty mother - who had locked her in her room and left. The child had died of hunger and thirst.

The ghost is finally seen running away with the childless widow ( who is a kindly, motherly sort) - whose body is found in her bed with her arm outstretched, as if she is being pulled.

This reminds me a little of a Dr. Who episode in which a child in a second world war gas mask keeps asking for his mother.

'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You my Lad.' by M. R. James (1904)

A professor goes to play golf on his own on holiday by the coast. He does not believe in the supernatural. An archeologist colleague asks him to look up a Templer site in the area. He comes across it by accident and digs up a whistle. That night he cleans it and blows on it. Immediately a strange wind starts up. The next day another man at the hotel, the Colonel, with whom he plays golf and bridge, tells him that in Scandinavian countries and the East coast of England there is a superstition that whistling calls up the wind. The professor scoffs at this.

Meanwhile there are unexplained happenings. The professor's other bed in his double bedroom is disturbed even though he hasn't used it, and a young boy is scared witless by someone waving from the professors room. The professor also dreams of a man running along the beach pursued by a spectre. There are also noises in the room which the professor dismisses as rats.

That night the professor wakes to find a spectre in the other bed. It becomes obvious that it is blind, and only when the professor makes a noise does it come over to him and try to force him out of the window. With this he is rescued by the Colonel who has forced himself into the room. Since the whistle is clearly to blame this is thrown away in the sea.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

My first dip into my Bollinger Wodehouse pile.

I am waiting for a book to come from the US at the moment (part of my accumulating library on the Silk Road). I did order the book from an Amazon 'Other Seller' in the UK (the book being out of print for some considerable time) but that seller couldn't find it (after a week of waiting on my part) so I decided to order from the US where there were more plentiful supplies.

So, as I am waiting, I decided to sample one from my Bollinger Wodehouse pile Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday. It is 317 pages long, but is such an easy read it took me less than a day and reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith's work. It is an allegorical tale, I believe, about the recent Tony Blair government. The dubious art of bureaucracy comes over very well, and although I did find it generally entertaining, I found its humour gentle rather than hilarious.

It was a 'Richard and Judy Summer Read', won the Waverton Book award and is going to be made into a film. I can imagine a film working very well, and this will no doubt help to make the book even more popular.

A book that I have found hilarious is Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington. It is, in fact, almost painfully funny - so much so I can only take a chapter at a time, and am rationing myself so it lasts a long time like a favourite treat.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading the Extremes.

Nick Middleton is great at giving impressions of exactly how it feels to do a variety of extreme activities: taking part in a game of kokpar ( a sort of rugby on horse-back involving a dead goat), falconing with a golden eagle the size of a four year old child, sleeping outside on a heated rock in hugely sub-zero conditions, climbing the world's largest sand dunes and going up an incline at high altitude. These are just some of the extremes in his book Extremes Along the Silk Road (a book I've had in my TBR pile for about six years now). He takes three of the most inhospitable areas of the world (Mongolia, Tibet and Kazakhstan (near the Aral Sea) which just happen to lie alongside the Silk Road) and describes how it is to exist there. It makes interesting reading.

As I've gone along I found out so many interesting facts I have listed them below in their three sections, and shall be adding to these as I read today.

Mongolian Facts.

Bactrian camels are more comfortable to ride than Dromedary ones as the riders fits between the humps rather than on top of one.

To enter a ger (transportable Mongolian house) you must not step on the threshold. It is then customary to kneel on the left hand side.

Fast Mongolian couriers (the service was known as a yam) used to wrap themselves tightly in silk to prevent their internal organs shaking, which might otherwise result in death. They could not eat en route and were able to cover two thousand kilometres with only short intervals for rest.

The karez are underground water channels supplying Uigher oases in the Takla Makan and Gobi deserts. They are fed from the bottom of the slopes of mountains and pass down to the plains by gravity. They date from the seventh century BC and originate in Persia, where they are known as qanat.

The Loess Plateau in China is due to thousands of centuries' worth of sand blown across from the desert. It presumably accounts for the haze in the cities such as Peking.

Tibetan Facts.

Acute Mountain Sickness can be fatal as it can cause brain swelling (HACE) and pulmonary oedema (HAPE). There seems to be no pattern in who is predisposed to either. The only solution is to be aware of symptoms and reduce altitude if affected.

The Badain Jaran region of the Gobi desert consists of huge sand dunes and lakes.

A symptom of Altitude sickness is waking up feeling a panicky shortness of breath.

The traditonal Tibetan (drokba) nomadic greeting is sticking out the tongue (to show it is not green - which is the sign of the devil).

The kora is a pilgrimage around a certain spot e.g. Mount Kailash. There is an inner kora (spiritual) and an outer kora (physical). The inner Kora is achieved through meditation , spinning wheels, chanting mantra, or prostrating. It is usually done in a clockwise direction, sometimes many times.

Aral Sea Basin Facts.

The western part of the Silk Road - from Persia to India - developed earlier than the eastern part. This is thought to be due to the rise of the Achaemenid empire in Persia which controlled large parts of the middle east 500BC, which in turn may have been due to the easy terrain.

It was subsequently taken over by Alexander the Great. By the third century BC this part of the silk road had become a meeting place for Greek, Persian and Indian ideas. Only a hundred years later would Zhang Qian, an envoy of the emperor of China, would set out from the east and become the 'Father of the Silk Road'. He discovered the 'Heavenly Horses' in what is now Uzbekistan - and the edge of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.

The area is dominated by the Aral Sea. But since Krushchev's irrigation schemes in the 1960s it has lost four-fifths of its volume. Its remaining waters are twice as salty as any ocean.

The Golden Man of Almaty (a town in Kazakhstan , the neighbour of Uzbekistan) is preserved in the museum. All that is left is his golden armour. He was a Scythian living in the 4th or 5th century BC. They were supposed to be illiterate nomads and Pliny thought they were cannibals.

According to Herodotus in 514BC Darius, the king of the Persians tried to invade Scythia, but the Scythians just ran away saying they had nothing to defend, and the Persians could see they had a point: nomads take their civilisation with them. Nick Middleton says the Scythians have left the world a lasting legacy as described by Herodotus - a curious garment covering the bottom part of the body, divided into sections to cover each leg separately. In other words a pair of trousers (or pants).

At the battle of Talas in AD 751 the soldiers of the Tang dynasty were defeated by the Arabs. Chinese prisoners of war knew the secret of paper-making and were taken to Samarkand and ordered to start making it. It was orinigally invented by a Chinese court eunuch called Cai Lun in AD 105.

In AD 1219, the leader of a town called Otrar, Inalchik, brought on the wrath of Genghis Khan by murdering his merchant envoys. In retaliation Genghis Khan sent in his troops, and when they captured Inalchik they put him to death by pouring moulten silver in his ears and eyes. The Mongols then went on a rampage that reached the gates of Vienna.

The shrinkage of the Aral Sea has been cataclysmic. Fish and small organisms have died out. Aeras of sea bed left exposed have become whipped up by the wind to produce dust storms. These have stunted plant growth. The irrigation was poorly managed and as a result overuse of agrochemicals has polluted the drinking water and caused severe health problems.

The book ended with an exciting expedition to Rebirth Island; this was an isolated island in the Aral Sea where the Russians conducted biochemical warfare research. Accompanying Nick Middleton was a man called Dave who was from Porton Down and an anthrax specialist. It is possible that weapons grade anthrax spores may still survive there, so the two men took no chances and went equipped with protective clothing and, in the laboratories that still stood in the Aralsk-7 base, exchanged gas masks for respirators. It sounds like it was an eerie experience.

It is an unexpectedly memorable book. The descriptions are vivid and I've learnt a lot about this area of the world. However, I think there is one small section that I think will remain with me for longer still. It is an anecdote, from Dave the germ warfare expert. Before the cold war ended, Dave worked as an intelligence officer in East Berlin.
'On several occasions he had spent lengthy periods crawling around the sewers beneath the Stasi buildings in East Berlin looking for secret documents....Since toilet paper was often hard to get hold of, even in East Germany's secret service, Stasi employees frequently used top-secret memos to wipe their bottoms.'

And to think that I thought the life of a spy was all glamour.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk

I did love this book.

It had adventure, espionage, politics and vivid depictions of one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Chinese Turkestan is somewhere no one much talks about these days. It is at the edge of everywhere; but that means it is also a place where various regions meet and mix. There have been waves of various people: Romans, Greeks, Indians, Mongols, Han Chinese, Russians, and all of these cultures have fought and sometimes, more excitingly, borrowed from each other and developed something new. It is also an area of extremes: the lowest place on earth (somewhere between the Gobi and Takla Makan deserts) are skirted by the highest mountains, and the summers are intensely hot, the winters intensely cold. There is no rain. It is the area of the world farthest away from any sea.

Into this place, at the very end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, came a series of explorers. They were representatives of their empires, and apart from making important archeological discoveries they were also surveying and, it is suspected, spying. Some of them, like Sir Aurel Stein and Albert von Le Coq concentrated on extracting artifacts and taking them back for collections in their own countries; others, like Albert Grunwedel, frowned upon this and tried to concentrate on making records and preserving what was there. It was called 'The Great Game' as they all competed to discover first what was there. Along the way was trickery, mystery and the basis of many a real Indiana Jones story.

Peter Hopkirk is an excellent story-teller, holding just enough back in order to reveal it later. It makes engrossing reading and I learnt a lot about the history of this place - both ancient and more modern, and made me eager to learn yet more. So now I am about to embark on another book: Nick Middleton's Extremes along the Silk Road.

It is a book I bought about six years ago now in the Cheltenham Literary Festival. So I'm glad to have the chance, at last, to read it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

At the Saltney WI

Tonight I learnt a very important lesson. Not all Women's Institutes are the same. Some Women's Institutes are more equal than others. Saltney WI near Chester is one of the best.

First, all communication was by email. This is good for several reasons, but mainly because I have a written record.
Second, Elizabeth, the chair, knew all about powerpoint presentations and what would be required.
Third, she had the screen, table and projector set up for me ready for me to plug in and go as soon as I got there.
Fourth, it was one of the friendliest and appreciative audiences that I've ever had for my 'Madwomen - 98 Reasons for Being' talk.
Fifth, they bought a couple of my books.
Sixth, they baked Victoria sandwich because it was a Victorian talk.

and, Seventh, best of all, they laughed at my jokes.
It was great! Thank you Saltney WI.

The Bezeklik Caves of a Thousand Buddhas

I'd thought it was just Sir Aurel Stein who was responsible for the theft of friezes from the ancient cave temples in Turkestan (now part of NW China), but as I read through 'Foreign Devils on the Silk Road' I find that people from several other nations took part in this pillaging too. For instance Albert von Le Coq was a German, and he managed to remove the entire contents of one particular cave in the Bezeklik complex and transport it back to Berlin. He, and his contemporaries, argued that they were preserving the antiquities by taking them away: even today figurative art tends to be desecrated by devout Muslims, and anyway the area is prone to devastating earthquakes (and one indeed destroyed a nearby ancient temple eleven years after von Le Coq's extraction).

However, the removal of these frescos to Berlin didn't guarantee their safety either. Peter Hopkins (author of 'Foreign Devils on the Silk Road') records that some of von Le Coq's Central Asian booty was destroyed in an air raid during the second world war. Though I guess, at the time, the world had more important things to think about.

Given this history, it is ironic to see that the pictures in the remaining frescos featured a Buddhist message of tolerance and peace for all nations.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Taklamakan Desert for the Desk-bound.

I looked for Kashgar on google maps last night,

and then shifting to the east a little, homed in on the Taklamakan desert.

The sand dunes were as regular as a patterned wall-paper; exactly as I'd seen from the plane on my way back from China. Then, without zooming out again, I 'travelled' in all directions trying to find a place where the sand gave way to something else, but it didn't. The sand went on and on; all that change sometimes was the size and direction of the sand dunes. It was only after I'd zoomed back out that I could find other features: rocks, dried up lakes and a hint of grass.

I am trying to understand the geography of the Silk Road, but it is a complicated process, not helped by the fact that the area has changed so much in recent years. With the fall of the Soviet Union new countries sprang up, and at the same time new nomenclatures seem to have become popular to describe cities in China.

In the front of the book I am reading now (Peter Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road) five different names for a place called Urumchi - which now, I believe, is known by yet another: Urumqi. No wonder I'm confused.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Silk Road by Frances Wood: Chapter 5 to the end.

I am continuing with my notes on the Silk Road by Frances Wood.

The fifth chapter deals with the transmission of faiths along the Silk Road by the Sogdians. Along with Zoroastrianism (a dualistic religion worshiping Ahura Mazda, which was associated with the sun and fighting against an evil deity), Manicheism was also propagated. Mancicheism was another dualistic religion which took in elements of Iranian, Semitic, Buddhist and Christian traditions. They survived in Medieval Europe as the Cathar movement, and adopted by the Uighurs of Mongolia. It also survived for some time in China. Mani believed people contained a finite number of light particles which could be divided amongst descendants and Mani believed that he was the successor of the other great prophets including Jesus, Buddha and Zoroaster.

Chapter 6 describes how China was influenced by the West in the Tang dynasty (618-907). Women's fashions became looser (thanks in part to a fat concubine called Yang Guifei) and the Chinese adopted the chair. This in turn influenced Chinese architecture. Tables and chairs were used and everything became higher up including windows. However, the Chinese way of sitting in a chair continued to resemble the way people sat on a mat, at least for some people. Also, by this time, Japan had isolated itself from Chinese influence and so continued with the tight-bodiced high-waisted style and continued with the mat system.

Chapter 7 is about the growth of Buddhism in China as evidenced by the cave of a 1000 Buddhas unearthed in Dunhuang.

Gradually Buddhism arrived in China via the silk road arriving in first half of first century with foreigners. Later, various monks in China went to great lengths going back aalong the silk road from 260 AD to accumulate the various sutras from India and translate them.e.g. Faxian in 399 and Xuanzang by 648. The account of one of these adventures is told later in Monkey.

Paper was invented and improved, and the first book recorded was made in 868AD by Wang Jie. This was in the form of a long printed scroll. Gradually stitched binding and whirlwind binding was introduced.

With the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 908AD following the Buddhist persecutions of the 9th century the great cave temples were abandoned and sand began to drift in. China oasis towns taken over by local leaders and Islam.

Chapter 8 deals with the succession of independent states that ook over the area after the decline of the Tang empire in 983. The Tanguts and Mongols were both Mongols and eventually, under Ghengis Khan , there was a huge empire stretching from the Caspian Sea to Peking in 1227. This was extended south to Tibet and northern India. This expansion continued until the 16th century.

Inroads made by the Muslims encouraged the West to seek out treaties with the Mongols against Islam in the thirteenth century. However, when William of Rubbruck, sent out in 1248, by the King of France reached Karakorum on the silk road he found there were Nestorians there already, and had been favourably received by the Chinese in 635AD. Furthermore there were captured Europeans there already.

In 1291 John of Montecorvino , a Franciscan friar, reached Peking and established a church.

Marco Polo is supposed to have been in Peking at the same time and makes little reference to him. This author seems to regard the Polo's account as inaccurate and doubtful, but they were supposed to have been welcomed into Peking by Kublai Khan around 1262 and stayed for 17 years, with Marco acting as roving ambassador.

In 1287 Nestorian clerics, Markos and Rabban Sauma arrived in Genoa having started in Peking. He then went on to Paris and Bordeaux and met Edward I.

Chapter 9 deals with travellers to Ming China (1368-1644) along the silk road. By now the sea routes were found to be more popular. However, embassies from peripheral states were greeted with gifts, treats and acrobatic displays.

Most famous city of the time was Samarkand which was ruled by Timur (Tamburlaine according to Christopher Marlow) because he was lame. He dreamed of emulating Genghis Khan and built himself an exotic town which was sumptuous with trees, garden, silks and various foods. Buildings too were magnificent. The sumptuous conception of Samarkand continued to dominate writers such as Keates, Arnold and Oscar Wilde.

Chapter 10 is about the Great Game - the jostling for dominance in the area between Russian expansionism from the north and British expansion from India during the 18th and 19th centuries. China also battled for control and dominance and at the end of the eighteenth century had conquered great swathes of land called the 'New Norders' Xinjiang and Sinkiang. However their grip on the area was precarious. As this weakened local leaders seized power and had uneasy relationships with the two main European powers in the area.

Chapter 11 is mainly about Sven Hedin. This Swedish explorer lived until old age despite taking many risks in his exploration of the Silk Road. Like Nikolai Przhevalsky, a Russian who came earlier, one of their aims was to get to Lhasa in Tibet. However, the Tibetans did not welcome foreigners. Przhevalsky died 1888, Hedin in 1952.

Chapter 12 concerns the opportunities for hunting in the Silk Road countryside, and the way these were taken up by Ellsworth Huntington, an American geographer. He believed that the climate had changed in the region and this had affected the populations and also the character of the people there.

Later Ralph Cobbold remarked animals such as the ovid poli were becoming scarce. As did R. C. F Schomberg in the 1930s who was most concerned that landmarks be named after explorers rather than members of the Nazi party.

Hunting produced trophies and also medicine. Tiger entrails were wound around pregnant women to ease childbirth.

Chapter 13 gives a brief general introduction to the life and work of Aurel Stein and his discoveries in the Dunhuang caves. The Daoist priest looking after them was Wang Yuanlu. He showed Stein the scrolls, and having reassuring local officials all was well, paid 500 rupees, removed as much as he could arrange to be carried to the British Museum.

Chapter 14 describes the collectors that followed: Pelliot, a French genius who visited the caves after Stein and carted more back to Europe, this time to Paris and wouldn't let anyone else see them. He showed some of the scrolls to the Chinese in Peking and this resutled in the caves being shut down, preventing further removal.

Then Germans Albert Grunwedel and Albert von Le Coq collected more artefacts from the area. Their justification was that they were not treasured by the local community who were in the habit of removing parts of the statues for fertlisiers. Muslims destroyed figurative pictures, the higher officials were Confucians and looked down on Buddhism as lower class religion, some of the locals were scared of the sinister nature of the writings and put them in a river.

Langdon Warner almost halted archeological expeditions by foreigners e.g. by hauling statues of horses from Xi'an to the university museum of Phildelphia before going on to Dunhuang. There, in 1923-4, he found that 400 white Russian deserters, interned in the caves in 1921 had scratched names, built fires, and generally desecrated murals. Also Mongol worhsippers leant and brushed against murals - in process of olbiterating them.

He fixed the pigments using glue given to him by a Peking chemist but encountered difficulties in the cold. Worked from day to night experiencing black remorse for what he had done and black despair. Even so, then negotiated with Wang to remove more statues - an old and tarnished one instead of the ones Wang had begged money to pay for restoration.

The contents of cave 17 are now dispersed between Peking, St Petersburg, Paris and London.

The last two chapters deal with explorers like the three women missionaries, Mildred Cable, Francesca French and Evangeline French who braved the unrest that occurred in the region throughout the twentieth century, and which continues today. Despite the encouragement of tourism by the Soviet Union and China, it seems to still be a lawless place, and the rise of the Taliban whose followers despise and deface anything Buddhist, make it a challenging destination even today.

Altogether, a very interesting and well-written introduction to a complicated part of the world. There is just one thing that puzzles me: I'm not sure if I've missed it, but there does not seem to be a single map. I would have much appreciated one, in fact I would have appreciated several.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Sogdians

I am now moving on to Uzbekistan - or as it used to be known 'Sogdiana'.

It turns out there is a singer in Uzbekistan called Sogdiana. She sings in Russian, English and a lot of other different languages, and I think her video reflects this exotic mixing - of both languages and culture. Uzbekistan seems to be a melting pot of styles and influences; and I think this film contains many of them: the Mongolian horse, the Arabic and Indian dancing, the Chinese silks and embroidery, and then, of course, the Russian language.

The Ancient Greels knew all about the Sogdians. They were always up for a bit of a rumble, but Alexander the Great manged to sort them out in 329BC. This turned out to be the making of them ...eventually (after the little inconvenience of being enslaved, transported or massacred) because they took up trading instead. In 138 BC Zhan Qian, the emissary of the Chinese Emperor, came across them, and for the next twelve hundred years they were the main tradesmen along the Silk Road, transporting not just goods such as silk, glass, paper, coral, amber and glass, but also religions such as Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. They spoke and wrote a version of Aramaic and it became the common language of trade along the Silk Road.

This is just a section from the fourth chapter of Frances Woods's Silk Road. It is a book I've been wanting to read for years (in fact ever since I got it).

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Sunday Salon: Comic Fiction

I have decided to collect the winners of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse award (and read them). This is an award for comic fiction.

I've already read Spies by Michael Frayn, and although I found it a touching and beautifully written story, I have to admit I don't remember finding it particularly hilarious; but then humour is an individual thing, and what makes one person weak with laughter, might leave his neighbour stony-faced.

The others are all books or authors I've been reading to read for some time so I think it will be an entertaining exercise.

Last year's (Solar by Ian McEwan) is missing because I've listening to it on audio, and this year's (Supersad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart) I've not got round to ordering yet.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Today I saw a tree

...with pursed lips, and fine moustache.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Happy Birthday Book!

It now one year since A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees's publication.

Since then I've given 35 presentations of one sort or another. It's been a lot of work, and I've no idea how successful it's all been in terms of book sales, but I've enjoyed most of it, and it has been great to see parts of Wales I'd never seen before. I've also met some very interesting people - that's been the best bit.

There is a big interest in the Welsh in Patagonia in Wales, and I've been pleased with how well my publisher, Seren, has managed to get my book 'out there' (with all the other Seren books). It seems like everywhere I've gone in Wales - all the big local gift shops - I've found the Seren carousel lurking in the corner.