Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Scottish Architects


A new research tool promised to be fun, the just-launched online index of Scottish Architects. OK, as fun goes maybe it's specialized. But I hopped on line to see what details they had about the Haldane residence near Auchterarder. Nothing. Not even the family seat in Gleneagles.
His birthplace then? 17 Charlotte Square was designed by Robert Adam. No references to the place in the dictionary though.
Still, I'm sure there's some good stuff there and it seems to be a type of Wikipedia, seeking internaitonal contirbutions about Scottish architects.
A new Edinburgh firm is more helpful. Their website has a page showing details of the interior of the Charlotte Square house, recently restored/adapted at a cost of millions.
Cloan is an architectural curiosity, one of those houses added on to by many architects over generations. I grew up in a similar one, the Old Rectory in Rempstone, whose foundations were supposedly from the 12th century, cellars with secret passages running out of them, but recent additions were Victorian - our family changed things more, and on a recent visit it's been changed again. Oliver Cromwell went to school there. It would surprise him now.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

History in the Unmaking


Up at dawn yesterday, on the road at 6 o'clock to sneak in ahead of the traffic congestion in Oxford - being a biographer was like having a proper job for the day, commute and all.
I was on the trail of the papers of C.G.Douglas - catalogued in Bath and now stored in the Oxford Physiology Lab. They are part of the Sherrington Collection, attached to a fine physiology library, but Oxford got rid of its librarians years ago giving their own spin to the idea of a 'virtual library'. No loans, and normally no access to research materials. The boxes I needed were in a cupboard in the corridor.
The staff were most helpful. A mini tour of the complex brought me to photos of my subject, J.S.Haldane - plus a little exhibition of realia from his Pike's Peak exhibition, and his pioneering gas analysis apparatus. It was a relief to be in a place where he is not just known but held in high regard.
Despite the high regard, a whole stack of his correspondence has gone missing. We rummaged away in unsorted boxes stacked on high shelves in a storage room. Handwritten papers by J.B.S.Haldane, his son, emerged - but not those letters. I keep finding reference to spectacular material (including his own autobiographical writings) that have disappeared.
The Douglas archive was a mini treasure though. Douglas was a colleague on that 1911 Pike's Peak expedition, the most courageous and valiant of researchers into the poison gases of the first world war, and clearly held Haldane in a position of high esteem and love. It was encouraging to find so many references among the papers in which people expressed their respect and devotion to Haldane. It keeps me going, knowing that I am unearthing a splendid life in so many regards.
The lab is postwar, though built to its 1930s design. Across the way the lab that Haldane knew was busy being demolished - the photo here is just about the last that can ever be taken. Meanwhile Haldane is acknowledged in a tiny road on the campus (see the nameplate top right in the picture), a turning off Sherrington's grander Sherrington Road. Sherrington did well to get so many plaudits. Like all those others who came before me, however, in coming close to Haldane I stay convinced that I have found myself the 'main man'.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Wild Boy of Aveyron


Years ago I worked as a dramaturg for Leicestershire youth theatre. The group had an inspirational director at the time, Andy Greenhouse, bringing the full power of Grotowski's methods to a group of talented teenagers. They got so into the material they never wanted to perform, just go deeper in their workshop space. We worked on the theme of Kaspar Hauser, the German wildboy who was brought into society from a childhood alone in the forest.
A similar figure has a walk-on part in my new novel, Slippery When Wet - a naked Bengali youth parading naked down the middle of the street. I borrowed an image from my Kaspar Hauser reading of those years - that looking into such a boy's eyes is like staring into the eyes of a hen.
This all comes back to mind after reading a splendid novel recreating the life of another nation's wildboy, The Wild Boy of Aveyron in France. The novel is Wild Boy by Jill Dawson. It's a grand concoction drawn together from the emotional hopes and buried histories of those surrounding the boy as well as the boy himself. It takes you into that post-revolutionary world of France in a highly engaging way. It's a true feat, giving the autistic boy with only three words as full a range of human expression and feeling as the intellectually acute young doctor whose charge he is in, and the 'stout-hearted' Madame Guerin who acts as his foster mother. An absorbing read.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Precognition, the writer and James Purdy


When I met the writer James Purdy we spoke of his play Children is All. It tells of a mother waiting for her son’s return from prison. Such is the tension of her waiting that when he does appear, an escapee, she has had a stroke and does not recognize him. Yet mother and son, as two dying figures, each discover some comfort in the other’s arms. For Purdy it was evidence of being ‘plugged in to nature’. The story was seeded as an idea by Purdy’s friend Miriam Andreas, a tale of a boy getting home from prison. Richard Purdy, Purdy’s film actor brother famed for his Shakespearean roles, made his long awaited return home where he was not recognized by his mother. Both mother and son died shortly afterwards. This emotional twinning, of play and reality, was not recognized by Purdy but by his friend and assistant John Uetter. The remarkable thing about it was the timing. First Purdy wrote the play, and years later the brother returned home to not be recognized by his mother. ‘So the story of Children is All came true later on,’ Purdy told me.
In return I told him a story of my own, about the writing of my new novel Ectopia.
I had written a section in which insects swarm down onto the seventeenth birthday party of the two twins, Steven and Karen. Their mother, ballooning towards a perfect sphere, receives the full brunt of the swarm. It’s the final straw for her nerves. She is institutionalised. The swelling affects her face to seal her eyes blind. She sits in her institution and points her face at the window to take in the effects of sunlight.
Then my mother got ill. After some history of pulmonary difficulties, perhaps emanating from a pulmonary embolism she suffered when giving birth to me, she was on her way to visit me for lunch when her lung suddenly punctured. The result was a series of agonizing weeks in hospital, from which she would never emerge. She entered a visionary state, in which she saw angels hovering over the beds of those patients who would shortly die. And then a process happened in which the air escaped from her lungs and inflated her. For some days she swelled and swelled, and nothing could bring the swelling down. She bulged beyond recognition, the swelling inflating the skin around her eyes, the cheeks, the eyelids, until she was rendered blind.
It was summer. The hospital windows were open. I walked in one afternoon for a visit and the ward was filled with the afterbuzz of high drama. A swarm of flies had entered some hours earlier. My mother, swollen to immensity, her eyes sealed blind, unable to move, had been coated with a layering of the insects.
‘That’s precognition,’ James Purdy commented when I told him the story. ‘You’re in touch with your unconscious, because actually our unconscious knows everything. That’s why we’re afraid of it.’

Monday, June 19, 2006

Children and War


My first novel On Bended Knees looked at how the effects of war are passed on from one generation to the next. The new novel Slippery When Wet takes a fresh look at the subject - the wars here being WW2 (specifically the campaign in what was then Siam) and the Indo-Pakistan War.
The subject of surviving war is never far from my writing. It was current for me in the ruins of Leicester in my childhood, the shell- and bullet-marked buildings of Berlin and Dresden in the 1970s. I've just found this journal note from 2004.
'As a child, growing up with adults' and parents' tales of their own childhood in times of war, a sense of a solid world order evaporates. Parents are survivors, but they survived as children, their survival was chance, not ordained, not of their own doing. Adults, who should have protected them, in fact died - nominally while protecting the children, but in fact while slaughtering each other.'

Friday, June 16, 2006

Writer Sells House to Fund Book!


One of the judges of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction the other night spoke of her amazement that a long-listed writer had mortgaged her house to buy archival material.
Where's the judge been? Is there another world out there in which writers are paid handsomely for really decent books?
I sold my first house to buy time to write a novel, On Bended Knees. I sold an apartment in Glasgow to pay for the travel that went into my travel book, On Sacred Mountains: great travel, lovely book, not an atom of commercial sense in the whole project. I didn't have any more houses to sell so sold all my possessions to pay for the research trips that went in to my biography In Search of the Divine Mother. Who needs records and books and TVs and pots and pans in any case?
I got another mortgage five years ago. Last year wasn't a bad one for earning, though it meant running four teaching jobs and doing freelance writing.
Now I have to work more than full-time, into next year, so as to write and deliver my biography of J.S.Haldane. The advance did reach five figures. Well hooray for that. Enough to pop the cork on the Cava. The last drip comes with the paperback issue in 2008. I'd already spent much more than that whole advance on the six months' work getting the proposal together. I thought for a while about rejecting the offer and letting the book go. But then a book becomes a labour of love, and J.S.Haldane is such a dream subject for a biographer. I wanted someone worth giving a few years of my life too - the more I learn of Haldane, the more I come to appreciate him and life itself.
But since the advance was long spent on preparing the book, I have to keep myself alive somehow.
That's OK. I've got the house (pictured). I can trade in the mortgage for some writing time. I went to see the estate agent this morning. It's on the market.
That's what writers do, isn't it?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Pssst - heard the one about a young female blue shark?


Back in 1996 I had a week alone in a hilltop house in Santa Fe, power pouring in from the mesas in the surrounding landscape. My plan was to write a simple fable, akin to 'Jonathan Livingstone Seagull' but about a shark. It got more absorbed and complex than that.
What a week. It involved living and seeing like a shark. I decided, though it was in English of course, that nothing could come outside of a shark's field of reference. It's a powerful piece, an astonishing process to have gone through.
I come back to it now and again, polishing away.
How crazy writing is at times. Ideas just come and grab hold of you like a ... like a shark, I guess. They make no comercial sense whatever. Yet they live.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Armchair Travel to Pike's Peak,


For a while I've had only temporary access to the Net. It's interesting to note how often I return to the writing task at hand because the option of cruising the web is not available.
But then you can always call it research. I've just been checking out Pike's Peak. The hero of my new biography, J.S.Haldane, led an expedition there in 1911. I'm wondering about flying out this summer to gather in local colour so I can bring that chapter to life. It looks well worth the trouble. A dramatic cog railroad takes you to the top, with huge climatic shifts en route, then in a 40 minute stay the chance you have the chance to imagine what it was like for Haldane and his team to be running experiments up there day and night for five weeks.
The cog railways runs an informative site. 2006 is in fact the bicentenary of the naming of the mountain.
For webcams of the views from the top of the Peak, try here.
And the image comes from a webcam of the Peak itself.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Inanimate Alice


I set up and ran my first professional website back in 1996 ... Erasmus.org (now defunct). All design work was done by a web design company in Santa Fe.
My own website was set up by my then 16 year old nephew in 2000. It is so full of content that the structure is too heavy to unravel and redesign. Oddly it still works in its way - though I've been glad of this Blogger outlet, the relative ease of publication as against working my way through HTML.
I'd love to have web design skills to hand - as I'd love my French to be fluent and to understand the night sky. As with those skills, maybe some day.
For now though it's interesting to come across the work of pioneers. I've just been told of one such, the writer Kate Pullinger. Her website is an interesting excursion in itself, and offers an online tale Inanimate Alice, blending a girl's simple story of driving through a radioactive night in China seeking her father along with graphics. Music and sound (do turn on those speakers for the journey) draw you in smoothly. Interactivity comes into the equation too, not only choosing when to shift the story forwards but also allowing the opportunity to take pictures of flowers along the way.
I was somewhat disappointed by the happy ending, for we had been heading somewhere weirder than that, but was quite engrossed for the five minutes .. and look forward to following the tale through episode 2 in Italy.
Give it a try. It's gentle pioneering material that is already surprisingly accomplished and opens up new writing dimensions. A blog comes attached to it if you want to engage directly.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Beside the River Kwai

I was pleased to follow this photo blog for scenes that featured in the Thailand section of my latest novel Slippery When Wet. It includes good scenes of the river ... 'The River Kwai' ... in Kanchanburi, and some fine shots of the war cemetery. Follow through to the last page for images of the temple, where the book's lead character climbed up through the dragon's body to experience the caves at the top.
I wondered whether the Jeath museum had changed since 1991, when I was there. A simple hut, one expected an 'upgrade' to something more audio-visual with paying turnstiles, a death camp experience for tourists. Happily, from this separate photo, it seems the simplicity remains. The hut based on those in which prisoners were housed, and filled with simple yet striking mementoes of that time of war (to which Maggie, in my novel, adds her own).

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cox's Bazar


Here's another journey, courtesy of the Internet, into the realm of one of my novels. The new one Slippery When Wet plays out much of its drama in Cox's Bazar.
I find the name itself, and its spelling, evocative. The town sits alongside the world's longest beach. Streets twist around market stalls and snake charmers, Buddhist communities cling to dusty hillsides above a temple, fishermen set out in wooden craft as distinctive as ancient pirate ships with turrets in their bows.
I made my second visit to the country in 1992, specifically to gather information for the novel. It was a dramatic time. 500,000 refugees had just fled into the country from Burma. A cyclone had ripped through the country the previous year. I visited the refugee camps - and gained huge admiration for the work of Medecins sans Frontieres. I visited terrific schemes run by World Vision as well.
Versions of my book fitted those refugee experiences into their pages. One World Vision project in Dhaka makes a significant entry, but otherwise the refugees were removed to the backdrop. They swamped the story. (I tried, as the first western writer into the area, to interest the press in the story and drew a complete blank - it didn't fit their entertainment schedule at the time.)
Many of my own experiences and observations of Cox's Bazar are now part of that novel. Yet of course they become the experiences of Maggie and Sepen, the two central characters. A novel transmutes material into something grander than autobiographical memoir--opening a novel to readers is aided by first gifting your own experience to different characters. It's a way of making the material universally accessible.

A fine picture blog ... and another

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Grantchester and summer lawns


Some days turn out just fine. Yesterday lunchtime saw a meeting at 'The Orchard' in the village of Grantchester, two miles from Cambridge. The meeting was with the writer Jill Dawson, an interview filled with her experience of mentoring for the book I am co-writing on the subject. That was a delight in itself. Coming to know 'The Orchard' on the sunniest of days was another. This has been a place for tea since 1897, tea-goers choosing deckchairs on lawns or in the shade of old apple trees.
A free Rupert Brooke museum on-site sets the place in its literary context. He spent years as a lodger here, E.M.Forster as a frequent guest, Virginia Woolf joining him in neo-pagan frolics, Maynard Keynes reconfiguring economics next door. The place comes with that breath of peace, the sense that it can be snatched away, the literary hayday coming at the end of a century's peace, between Waterloo and the Somme.
From Berlin Booke wrote 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester', musing over tea in the Orchard .
Stands the church clock at ten-to-three
And is there honey still for tea?

A path is mown through the hayfields down to the river, then along its banks. England keeps its secrets hidden for much of the year, then reveals them. What a treat it is to discover them for oneself.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The 'Hengist' Handley Page HP42 - and, of course, J.S.Haldane


One real joy of biography is finding what's lost then sharing it. These images from early 1936 are unlikely to make it into my biography of J.S.Haldane, but since they're probably a rare treasure for aviation enthusiasts I offer them here.
The Hengist was a Handley Page HP42 biplane, built in Hertfordshire, flying in the East for Imperial Airlines. The first picture was taken at Gaza before the plane's departure for Rutba and Baghdad. The second photo was on arrival at Shaiba. In that shot Dr J.S.Haldane is second from the right, in conversation with a Mr F. Yeats-Brown. The plane was destroyed in an air hangar fire in Karachi the following year.
It gave me real pleasure to discover these photos in a family album - most especially pertinent considering the vital role played by Haldane in enabling high-altitude flying.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Temple of the Floating Nun


I wove scenes from my time working in Thailand into my new novel, Slippery When Wet. The book is set in 1992, and that visit was in 1991. Maggie, the central character, moves out from Bangkok to the town of Kanchanaburi--famous for 'the Bridge over the River Kwai'.
The Internet was in its infancy then. It's interesting to follow old travel routes through the eyes of recent travellers. Maggie cycles out of the town for two fundamental scenes in the book at the temple of Wat Tham Mankhon Thong. Climbing the vast staircase to enter and emerge from a complex of tight caves is essentially a rebirth for her. She then descends to encounter the floating nun.
From travellers accounts, a nun still floats in the temple pool. In fact, it seems that several nuns now float there, taking turns--some perhaps buoyed by a discreet life jacket. The spectacle now raises funds for the temple, spectators sitting in a small auditorium built around the pool.
There was no such auditorium for Maggie's visit -- or for mine. Just the pool, and the one aged and original nun. I'm glad the novel is there for its record of one of the world's distinctive holy beings. The nun's body was eased of its pains to achieve real grace in the pool, and pull the spectators into her own meditative space. When she climbed out, pilgrims lined up (as did Maggie) for an encounter that in Hindu terms would be darshan, an audience with a holy person. Her own form of transmission was one I have not seen elsewhere, biting the flame off a candle and blowing its smoke onto the pilgrim's forehead.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Bill Reid in Vancouver


The bear of the Haida sculptor Bill Reid looks out on the Gallery of the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. This space is indeed a fine treat of light by the architect Arthur Erickson (see last month's posting) - though the exterior grounds need landscaping to give the museum the interplay with the surrounding landscape of land, water and mountains it deserves.
Erickson was given a turret to work around when designing the museum - and ingeniously built a space for an original Bill Reid commission to be craned in and rest beneath a perspex cupola. 'The Raven and First Men' has the power of great story-telling captured in the detail as you wander around and around the piece.

Another Bill Reid awaits at Vancouver Airport, a mythical setting for a piece about new lands and travelling the waters. 'Jade Canoe', or 'Spirit of Haida Gwai' (Haida Gwai meaning islands of the Haida people) it again unravels stories as you voyage around it. The last picture here is of a detail tucked into the rear of the sculpture, the character of 'Mouse Woman'. She is the grandmother of the raven, who has been forced to shoulder the blame for many of her wilful misadventures.


Friday, June 02, 2006

Rodney Graham's Millennial Time Machine


It's not often you spot a modern work of art and instantly can name it. Sheltered in a perspex walled pavilion on the campus of UBC was, quite clearly, a time machine. A plaque on the wall of the installation confirmed the perception. This was 'The Millennial Time Machine', placed here in 2003 by the renowned photo-conceptualist Rodney Graham, a Vancouver native.
I was invited inside for some final magical moments in Vancouver. A 19th Century landau, a large brass lens protrudes from the rear. It looks across a basin of planted parkland to a young sequoia, the image of which is cast upside down upon a round circular screen in the centre of the vehicle. Closed inside, on the soft cushioned seats, the viewer becomes the only film, the only recording device, as the transmission from nature is fed into the darkness.
The conceit is that this vehicle out of history is driving forward while looking back. The tree plays its own role in moving across time, being so young yet set to grow and span the next centuries. And it all plays out in the present, where the moment is alive and nothing is recorded.
The experience is profoundly meditative, the tree alive and shifting with the wind that plays through it yet reflected as if in a still pool. At times it was also startling, occasional seagulls slashing inverted white flights across the image.
For myself, on my own journey out of time, researching the inked handwriting of J.S.Haldane from over a hundred years ago in the Charles Woodward Memorial Library on campus, the occasion was a wondrous rounding. Haldane began his own career in a horse-drawn era-and I like to think the Sequoia would have set him in mind of the Scottish landscapes of his childhood. Yet his entire career was spent reaching out of one century, out of one millennium, towards the next. He shifted from penny farthings to bikes, was instrumental in bringing submarines into existence, helped ventilate the first motor tunnels, designed the first space suit, and in the twenties was advocating steam as against the internal combustion engine.

Inside the time machine I travelled for a while out of all thoughts of past, future and present, into some vastly soothing space outside of time, and then was delivered back into the carriage--in time to emerge and taxi to the flight back to London. But some ghost of myself, alng with the 3,000 or so others who enter the time machine each year, still sits on that padded seat, gazing into the image of the tree hanging down from the land and the sky.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Basra 1936


With the latest British presence in Basra providing images of war and occupation, I thought it might be pleasant to post these alternative images of the city. The first shows Dr J.S.Haldane, his sister Elizabeth Haldane, and a Mr Grantham being ferried across the Shatt-al-Arab. An album of photographs is teaching me that this trip, the last of Haldane's life in which he was testing for the effects of extreme heat on workers in Iraq and Iran, was far more extensive than I thought. This image is blurred, but still gives a sense of a stately crossing.
The second shot is also from early 1936, of Arabic craft on the Shatt-al-Arab.