Thursday, April 27, 2006

Tiruvannamalai and Arunachala


A couple more images from one my books - these ones from the trips for On Sacred Mountains.
Swami Annamalai was one of the finest real-life characters I have ever met. He walked with me on my pradakshina (walking circuit) of the holy mountain Arunachala, and climbed it with me one morning, though this photo is of him at home in the Parvathi Temple on the mountain's hillside. The water streamed white outside, deemed to be the milk flowing from Parvathi's breasts.
Parvathi is deemed to have joined with Shiva to form the mountain, a balanced male and female entity. The female deity presiding over the surrounding land is Durga. And below is the image of Durga from her temple in the town of Tiruvannamalai, which stretches at the foot of the holy mountain.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Scitalk


Off to an English Pen meeting last night - in the Adam Street club venue (pictured). The blue plaque marks the house of Richard Arkwright, quite appropriate for the topic of the evening where four scientists were selling science and scientists as suitbale topics for fiction writers. It's part of an operation by Scitalk, focused on bringing writers and scientists together.
Experiments by scientists see them working all hours of the day and night - so if you need a character to appear at 4am in a story, why not make it a scientist? You need foreign characters? Choose scientists, who travel around the world seeking new stages of their academic career. They all certainly enthuse ... last night's bag were a geologist, materials scientists, developmental scientist, and particle physicist.
They didn't include the mad, evil scientist amongst the panel - more like the writer's stock in trade.
I wondered about bringing biographical and metaphysical impulse into the life stories of scientists (on my own current quest for the life of J.S.Haldane. Some scientists might be averse to such a reading, they told me, others not. What becomes ever cleaer for me, what I want to put across, is the excitement of scientists for their science, the creative rush of their own game.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm


A fine working day in London - a quick stab at the pile of books awaiting me in the British Library ( a fine account of a gas explosion in Action in 1927 was today's special treat), then off to the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge for a Biographers Club lunch.
Sarah Helm was the guest - a fine talk without notes on the use of sources for her book on Vera Atkins, 'A Life in Secrets'. She told me she was somewhat shy of the bigraphers' tag, still being a journalist at heart. This book started out as research for a novel, including an interview with Vera Atkins, then Sebastian Faulks came out with 'Charlotte Gray' which stole that fictional ground. In any case the need to know the actual facts kept getting in the way of making them up. Sarah kept pitching ever longer story ideas to her newspaper editors, as newspapers were shrinking in size, in their scope for long pieces, and in funds. The narrative nonfiction specialist was being born.
I was interested in her distinction between biographers and journalists - for Sarah Helm that 'journalist' tag meant she was was primarily concerned with discovering the story. I guess that's my main obsession too, but it's a structural one. The fascination comes with a real character emerging into distinctive shape and substance out of shadow.
Vera Atkins might have been hard to come to love - though for Sarah Helm the main worry was that her character would come to seem uninteresting. Research dispelled that concern. Andrew Lownie, who runs the club, claimed the resultant book is a model for the way it displays a biographers concers. I look forward to reading it once I can step from my own research and beyond 1936.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Afterlife

A man appeared in a dream last night - April 22nd /23rd. Oddly, while I don't remember the dream, I was left with the man's name and the charge of remembering it till morning. I made up some word associations to help me do so.
The name was Archie Moran.
I googled it on waking, and found the following ... curiously enough, given my own name, from the martinsville bulletin. Note the dates involved ... I was dreaming this on April 22nd US time.

Archie Moran
Archie Moran, 71, of Bassett, died Thursday, April 22, 2004, at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital from injuries received in an automobile accident on March 20, 2004.
He was born Sept. 23, 1932, in Patrick County to the late William Zane Moran and Bertie Agee Moran. He also was preceded in death by two sisters, Ocie Hamblin and Marie Banks, and four brothers, Jiney, Guy, Edward and Wilson Moran.
For 20 years, he was the owner and operator of Archie's Plumbing and Heating of Floyd, and he retired from the Henry County Public Service Authority. He served in the U.S. Army.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Research in Australia


Writing a biography is a grand way of getting around the globe. In quest of my subject J.S.Haldane I was in Richmond yesterday, meeting his grandson Professor Denny Mitchison - who is an endearing image of his grandfather. Next week I head up to the family seat in Scotland, in countryside near Perth. In May I head to Vancouver for a week, where the main Haldane archive is held. A trip around Flanders and up Pikes Peak in Colorado are to follow soon. I started off with a journey out to Welsh colliery towns and down Big Pit.
Meanwhile I have been wondering about a cache of letters Haldane wrote to his friend J. Wilson out in Australia. The originals are in Sydney, and unphotocopiable. The leters seemed necessary - but what an expensive trip in twerms of time and money to reach them. However through the web I found that they reached Sydney from the Basser Library in Canberra, who retained photocopies - which could surely be photocopied.
Then in The London Review of Books I found a neat little classified advert for Ian Warden out in Canberra, offering to 'fossick' about in Australian archives on behalf of those of us not lucky enough to be there ourselves.
Ian (pictured) duly fossicked - with great patience and aplomb. A handsome package of fabulous correspondence arrived in the mail yesterday - all wonderfully vital. A great service from Ian - splendid communication throughout and utterly reasonable costs. If you need a keen eye and nimble fingers in Australia, I thoroughly recommend him - iwarden@netspeed.com.au.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Swine Test


I met with an Australian artist the other day. Her home is full of wondrous pieces. In Australia and the Netherlands her gallery shows sold out. In London she can't get anyone to begin to understand where she's coming from. She's about to pack up her pieces (bar the two we bought for our walls) and return to Australia. I offered her my 'swine test' concept to take with her.
It follows the 'pearls before swine' understanding, and is an exercise in self-confidence. You put your beautiful creations before someone. You've worked damn hard and know they are pearls. So this is just testing whether the person is a swine or not.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Krishnamurthi's birthplace and Mother Meera's roadsign


A couple more images to share from that biographical research trip of 1994. Madanapalle has a trio of Indian holyfolk associations. Above is the birthplace of J.Krishnamurthi. It was not open to the public when I was there, but showed signs of being preserved. The town is also the place of the Maharishi's first teachings. And of Mother Meera's new home in India. The sign is of the street, which she named in honour of the supreme godhead.

Monday, April 17, 2006

West Mersea Native Oysters

Back in 1994 I met my partner James's Aunt Alice for the first time, a rendezvous at the oyster bar in Grand Central Station. That was my first bite of oyster - my first experience of slipping down food infused with the taste of sea. I'd always been a finicky eater but James keeps leading me to new ground. A different taste of sea came from lamb fed on the saltmarshes around Mont Saint Michel.
Sometimes when I'm eating I know it's good, but ask James to put the meal into words for me, so I can really experience it. I can't say food has bound full-flavoured into my writing yet, but give it time.
This image comes from the weekend's taste experience - James giving his all to a West Mersea Native Oyster. Largely supplanted by the more disease resistant Pacific ones, this one has an extra rip of flavour. It's seasonal - going with months with R in them - so the trip was an urgent one before April and the harvest season ended. West Mersea is a small island south of Colchester (Britain's oldest recorded town, on the south as East Anglia starts bulging out of England). The oysters are perfectly matched by a bottle of West Mersea vineyard's own white wine.
James is a writer too. I've always reckoned that writing has to be fuelled by experience. Yo!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Happy Easter


Hey, let's just lose the writing angle for a while and go celebratory.

Here's a shot of newborn mother and lambs, shot by a bird reserve in marshes just south of Colchester yesterday. Godwits, redshanks and avocets plucking their feet across the mud, swallows touching UK shore for the first time in 2006, the sun still behind clouds but not too biting with your back to it. How grand to take a proper break now and again.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Christ in Pezilla


Another from my 'one from the books' images - this one a special posting for Good Friday. The statue of Christ on the cross stands at the entrance to the village of Pezilla de Conflent, in the eastern Pyrenees. This is the site for the opening of I was Carlos Castaneda, where Castaneda makes his first appearance.
That book crosses time and geography, taking in Santa Fe, the Peruvian Andes and Amazon, and the Pyrenees. Below is an image that reflects that crossing of various membranes that inhabits the book - a stairway I photographed in Machu Picchu.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Mother Meera's home village, Chandepalle


When I took pictures back in 1995, researching my biography of Mother Meera In Search of the Divine Mother, I believed I was capturing the images on behalf of all those devotees who might never get to see them for themselves.
Years have past, and it no longer seems right to post pictures of Mother Meera's family in India. Some future day perhaps, when it does not seem so invasive. They were good and welcoming people.
Here are a couple of shots of her home village, Chandepalle, in Andhra Pradesh. The first is of the small house in which she was born. The other is the house of Venkat Reddy's family, where she went to work and where he found her after roaming india in search of a 'divine mother'. That house was across the wall from her own. When you learn it is the best house in the village (inside has a fine cooling courtyard), you understand something of the huge leap made from there to her present residencies in Germany.

The Literary Consultancy - an editing option


While we're on about the subject of editing (The Grumpy Old Bookman has taken up the baton and run with it today - and the image here is of Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass'), I had lunch with Rebecca Swift of The Literary Consultancy yesterday.
I first came across Rebecca in person a couple of London Book Fairs ago, when she stood to challenge the Fair's high-flying publishing panel with a question on behalf of writers. It was refreshing to hear a writer's perspective brought into the equation for once. That moment was clear evidence for me that the Literary Consultancy is on our side.
Rebecca maintains connections with agents in the industry, and one goal of the TLC is to steer writers on that route towards publication. It's also for those who have no particular expectation of publishing but want a one-off reflection of what they've done. The editorial comments aim to be frank rather than complimentary. You should come away not only with understanding what changes need making before approaching the publishing industry, but also whether it's worth bothering that industry at all.
I've recommended them to others in the past, and found their responses helpful. My own single use of them was more mixed. I went with the focused question - what route has this novel got into the commercial world? The response was clear. None. Put it on a shelf. Forget it and move on, it's too flawed in too many ways to mend. I had to work hard to turn that feedback into a positive, to burrow through the response and find ways to adapt the book accordingly - my book was damned when I was more open to learning how damnable the business was that would make no place for it.
I didn't take the 'shelve it' advice. I've spent years more on that book. Some works are simply inevitable and have to be written and that is one. It's now finished and glorious.
I know writers with book contracts in place still pay to use TLC. It gives good employment for fine writers and editors who work as readers as well, so your hard-earned money is going to a good cause. Worth a shot for anyone with a manuscript who's wondering about the next stage.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Editing and Macmillan

John Barlow was lamenting the lack of editing in the six Macmillan New Writing books - and writers have followed through with comments saying how the books were indeed professionally edited by the company.
My own first novel (On Bended Knees) came out from Macmillan. Editing was a brief and happy affair (I was flying off for months in Thailand which encouraged agreement, waving a rapid goodbye to a favourite chapter).
With my four books since then, editing has been minimal. I've even wondered whether the editors actually read the books - their one or two suggestions seemed more intended to stamp authority on a book than working on the book's behalf.
Copy editors have gone to town on them - how wearying that can be. Several libel lawyers combed every sentence of In Search of the Divine Mother. Editors fight to get the book through their systems, they get the blurbs and the cover art and the support of the house, but in my own experience the impact of their editing has been pretty minimal.
As Ben Ball said (see the posting below this), while he always expects to have some input to a book, manuscripts are ideally polished to the extent that they are ready to fly when they reach an editor's desk. Personally I am quite prepared to pay someone to do that job, to bring in an experienced, professional objective opinion, and have done so in the past. An alternative is to rope in a writer friend, which I have also done, and trading services is possible there (why should writer friends work for free? And are friends the mnost objective readers?)
I can see, as one of those posting comments stated, that one does not wish to pay the publisher for editorial work on one's own book. (I'm surprised the contract of my own biography sees me paying for any index, which strikes me as highly dubious.) But I can also see the point of bringing in outside editorial assistance so that a book needs very little work when it reaches an editor.

Monday, April 10, 2006

A Publisher's take on publishing - from an interview with Ben Ball

My own relationship with Ben Ball was brief. He bought my biography The Extreme Life of J.S.Haldane on proposal in the summer of 2005, for Simon & Schuster UK. A short while later, he was packing his bags for a return to his native Australia, to be become the publisher of Penguin there. (For want of a picture of Ben, I offer an Australian penguin.) I caught up with him in November 2005, while interviewing for a book I am co-authoring on mentoring. This discussion ranged a little wider than that brief. I’ve trimmed those aspects principally pertinent to mentoring. Here are some fragments of Ben’s take on the publishing scene, primarily related to his own speciality of literary fiction. Offered without my comment, though I'm happy to join in any debate on the 'comments' zone.


Publishers are trying to get more out of fewer resources. Editors don’t have as long to spend on books as in some recent golden age.

In contemporary publishing people have to make it big with their first book or not at all. This isn’t so much publishers’ doing as people’s. People are interested in new things, young things, rather than a body of work.

More and more people exist and want to write books. We should be publishing fewer books. The funnel gets narrower and everybody’s time is more tense. With literary fiction, you do have to hit the ground running.

With the likes of EOPS and Booktrack, it’s much more difficult to overcome a poor track record than no track record. It’s better to write a bad book and not publish it than publish it.

An MA in Creative Writing doesn’t matter to me either way. I don’t believe you can teach creative writing but you can give people time to learn. Time to write, focus to write, a forum to discuss. You can facilitate that group, make people comfortable, have insightful things to say. There is a danger that creative writing courses put out a product. In the 90s you could pick up an American manuscript and tell which writing course it came out of. The good ones don’t do that. If something comes from an agent I know and respect, that is more valuable to me than if it comes from a good writing programme.

When faced with a huge amount of stuff one’s focus is ‘If I can get rid of this it will be great’, so it’s something to guard against. The sheer weight of work can put you into that mental space, but not often.

If voices came out of communities that hadn’t formally expressed themselves and they were coherent, publishers would be over the moon. That’s exactly the sort of thing that publishers want – something new to publish. The sexiest thing in publishing is always a new voice from somewhere new. The misery memoir is an example of people telling stories that people didn’t really talk about. Now it’s a whole industry of its own.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Mankell and Africa - from the Independent

A fine piece on Henning Mankell and his African side in the Independent today .... I'll leave this link up while it stays free.

I've tried the Mankell criime novels - got rather bogged down, not happy to stay so long at a crime scene, wanting more narrative drive, but this new book seems strong. I'm impressed too how old streetkids can seem, how they inhabit their bodies in different ways - Mankell is finding a religious aspect to that, and also the bitterness and loss involved. I like his tale of how the new story was gifted to him as revelation too.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Biographical Research at the UCL Special Collections


My dance along the J.S.Haldane trail took me down the Hampstead Road to the UCL Special Collections today. Upstairs in an apparent office block they manage to create that comforting library fustiness. Orwell's archives are there. As are the papers of John Burdon-Sanderson.
My dance is growing wider. Burdon-Sanderson was the uncle of my J.S.Haldane, and was the professor over him in his early years working at Oxford. A trawl through many boxes found a few personal gems, the uncle writing to the mother about my character.
It's an intriguing process, this one of biographcial research. The story comes in little pieces, to be fitted into some coherent whole along the way. Today I found characters reflecting from great age, and also found them when they were young. I saw generational patterns, those who would become venerable and then die also passing through the first flush of romance, work and parenthood. It's all very endearing.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

My Bloglink roll of honour for March

March was the first full month of this blog. My site as a whole had 7,289 readers pass through. Who specifically came from other bloggers?
Michael Allen, the Grumpy Old Bookman, had a hands-down victory with 91 hits.
John Barlow a handsome enough second place with 11.
Mountainmurmurs managed a generous 9.
Transita, who never quite got it together to actually post my piece written for their Author of the Month spot, came through with a rather feeble 8 hits.
That's it - the cut-off point was 6. Anne Weale's Bookworm site, which featured me twice including a rather combattive interview, didn't feature at all. But then her site is rather parsimonious on its links.
The honours board for April is still open. Get linking! I'm happy to link back as appropriate.
In honour of his sterling work, here's an extra link for Michael Allen, who is featuring his new novel, published in daily excerpts, at the moment. Cory Doctorow is often taken as the model for success through giving novels away in efashion. There's something in it - but Doctorow's books are written specifically for technofreaks. Downloads suit the concept. I suspect Mr Allen's market ain't so techie. A brave venture though - and an easy way of sampling the book before ordering one made of paper.

A Novel that changed the world?

Melvyn Bragg is off on another of his intellectual sweeps. One of the quiet pleasures I had when running a video publishing house was buying up films from Border TV in which he was the presenter, and zapping his presence as much as possible for the video release - talking heads don't bear repeat viewing on video, and his was more irritating than most.
In choosing twelve books that changed the world, he includes such things as patents and the Football Association book of rules (his books are limited to UK ones) and excluded all novels, thinking no novels have actually changed the world.
I wonder. Novels have defined nations, were important enough in the Soviet Union to be passed around as samazdat editions. Hard Times was a campaigning novel which worked at switching a certain Victorian mentality and provoked increased social awareness at a crucial time. Satanic Verses was a pretty crucial playground in which participants got to exercise the fundamentalist doctrines that have plagues this millennium.
My own vote though would go to D.H.Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. I bought my first copy from a second-hand bookstore in Loughborough as a kid. Inside the front cover it said the edition was 'expurgated'. I went to another bookstore, looked up the word in a dictionary, and threw the book in a wastebin. Lawrence didn't live his life, his book wasn't the subject of an extraordinary trial, in order for censorship to get in the way of the reader's experience.
The trial of his book (imagine, a book being on trial) was a battle for modernity. A major stroke was played and won in the ongoing battle against censorship, against the oppression by one part of society of another. The trial question 'would you let your servants read this book?' showed how clearly the issue was not just one of sex but the maintenance of a hierarchical social order. Writers were given tremendous freedom of thought and language (my own new book, Slippery When Wet, an older English matriarch's affair with a young Bengali, would have been impossible without this precedent-I've faced enough lawyers with my own books as it is!).
Lady Chatterley's Lover was brazenly, wildly contentious. It took on the social order. And it won. We're a more openly sexual world as a result, less class-ridden, less repressed, we have continued to access more equality of gender and sexual orientation.

The FA Rule Book did not bring football into being. It established a new form of hierarchical rule. FIFA is now an immensely wealthy and powerful institution as a result. Lawrence posed individuality, freedom of expression, against the stifling of it. Let's hear it for the writer!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

One from the past

Here's a piece of history I just found while trawling the Net ... an essay from the writer Cliff Bostock, spurred by my book In Search of the Divine Mother.
I wouldn't give the same interview now - one moves on - though nor do I feel the need to change how I'm quoted. I notice Mother Meera is about to make a visit to America. Should people go? Sure, why not. Life is for daring, for opening oneself up.

Spring is Sprung

Birds screeched above Sandy yesterday. A pair of peregrine falcons commanded the sky, sending pigeons bursting for safety out of the woodland. It seemed to be a mating flight. We're all getting ready for Spring.
It was another of those fine 'birds as omens' as well - I was taking the walk having just sold our house. The agent had been marketing it for all of an hour - click for the tour!. Where are we going? Who's to say. I guess my gypsy blood has bubbled up to the fore again and it's just time to hit the road.
I'll miss the walks from here though - especially the loop that takes in the home reserve of the RSPB. This picture's from this morning's walk - archetypically English, birds nesting in a thatched mailbox. Thank God for Spring.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Daniel Falcone and 'Night Swimming'


In thinking back over the other night's NT production of 'Royal Hunt of the Sun', i realize how its director Trevor Nunn has subjected me to endless hours of tedium over the years. A hackneyed director of an old old school. Time to boycott future works of his and let others enthuse.
I found a new director on that same South Bank outing though. Taking in the 'Troubled Teens' collection of shorts at the London Gay and Lesbian Film festival, Daniel Falcone's 'Night Swimming' brimmed with light, movement, vitality, characters, compassion, framing. It was an MFA for Daniel Falcone, who was in the audience puppy-full of enthusiasm for London, life, his film, his music.
Where the audience had questions they were for the English short 'Goodboys' set in Langdale Reformatory. It was OK, worthy, though never particularly credible. All rather held back, more like being in a public than a reform school, everyone minding their language. Three of the programme's four films were bleakly northern European, one was American and alive. You can see why hits come from over the pond.
I asked Daniel the one quesion, about the choice of music which really drove the film forward. As with every aspect of this piece, it was a considered and passionate choice. He was so excited to be in London, near where so many of his very favourite bands came from.
His enthusiasm for his art was touching. Some of it rubbed off. I stepped back out and walked along the Thames, feeling sunnier.

Search Strings and Guadalupe Peak

It's interesting to see what 'search strings' folk put in to search engines, and are thereby brought to my site.

Two from yesterday:
madre con guantes blancos de latex
fattest girl giving birth

I hope the searchers found whatever they wanted.

My number two search for March, with 21 hits, was
slough of despond, relating to a walk I took in nearby John Bunyan country a while back. I'm new to this particular blogging mode, though did run my own version, This Writing Life, clambering through HTML for a number of years. The site is part of my own history now.

In that regard 'mother meera' stays my number one search string, 39 hits on her own in March plus more in longer strings and a lot of references to me from links. Besides being much else, she was my first bigraphical subject.

Coming up strong though is Guadalupe Peak, the Texas mountain that forms a central part of my book On Sacred Mountains, as well as the turning point in my own life. For a version of the tale, click here. One huge advantage of this blogging format is the relative ease of posting pictures. So here, for those interested, is me in that defining moment, looking down on Guadalupe Peak.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Peter Shaffer and the Inca Trail

When I first came to know about theatre, Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun was one of those plays I longed to see one day. As a teenager I saw several productions of Equus, which altered me. Shaffer became my model dramatist. Stephen Spender was my model critic, the only problem with him being that he oculd not get Shaffer - he found his writing educational and pedestrian.
Last night an ambition was realized - I was at a sold-out preview of The Royal Hunt of the Sun at the National Theatre. The result? Spender is restored for me, Shaffer diminished.
I'm grateful for the love I have had of Shaffer's work in the past, but this was pedestrian stuff - like an educational show on the Incas to be trawled around schools. Maybe the earnest production did no favours - I could not believe the Andes were conjured by white sheets and the Incan dances were basically pleasant but effete, no raw power there at all.
In truth, it was dreary - verbose and artificial. There was much more life, variety and entertainment to be found in the parade of people and buskers on the South Bank.
Maybe I've just grown up.
The picture of Macchu Picchu is my own - there's more theatre in that ruin than in the National Theatre revival, so enjoy!