Thursday, August 30, 2007

The real meaning of the Haldane motto 'Suffer' - and other fine etymological discoveries


Martin Haldane writes from Gleneagles to alert me to the real meaning of the Haldane family motto, 'Suffer'. The gloss I had learned from reading J. S. Haldane's son, J. B. S., was along the lines that you put yourself on the line to help others. That certainly fit my impression of J. S. Haldane's life. (The motto meant so much to him that he had it carved into his new Oxford home.) However I naturally accept Martin Haldane's correction: 'The Haldane motto, "Suffer", is not an English word, but rather is the imperative of the Latin verb, suffero, and is an injunction to bear up rather than to suffer, which carries rather different overtones.'
My American informant, Peter Thornton, assures me: 'The Latin verb is suffere, literally "to bear under" (sub, under, plus ferre, to bear or carry). Figuratively, it is used to mean "to take up, submit to, undergo, bear, endure, suffer." So says my Lewis, A Latin Dictionary for Schools.'
So where does our word 'suffer' come from? Peter continues: 'Our word "suffer" comes from sufferre, which passed into Vulgar Latin, Old French and finally Middle English. T.S. Eliot liked to use "suffer" in the abstract sense of "to be acted upon," the opposite of "to act".'
In fine etymological vein, Peter also takes issue with an item in my J. S. Haldane bio, Suffer & Survive. 'I do not believe that "damp," as in firedamp or blackdamp, is adopted from Modern German "Dampf," as you claim. The Columbia Desk Encyclopedia agrees with you, but the etymology is implausible. The word "damp," with the meaning "poison gas," already existed in Middle English, likely derived from the Middle Dutch "damp," vapor. In short, your etymology, but displaced by several centuries and a language.'
While having an encyclopedia on my side, I am happy to be pulled up by scholarship. Peter is apparently psychic as well as a scholar, because his email addressed the very same question I had been dealing with in conversation here in England just the day before. His information corrected my own false conclusion.
'Americans use the word "linden" to designate the tree that the British call "lime." Because "Linden" is also the German name for the tree, I assumed we had borrowed it from them, perhaps via the Pennsylvania Germans. It turns out, however, that in older English usage, both "linde" and "line" or "lime" were current names for the tree; one eventually prevailed in America and the other in Britain. early settlers in central Illinois (c. 1830s) called the tree "lin," probably a variant of the older English "line" rather than a contraction of the older "linde."'
There! While taking no credit whatsoever, I reckon I have delivered one of the most scholarly blogs of the day.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Scottish book


I lived in Scotland for eight years (in the village of Glencoe up in the Highlands, and in Glasgow). Returning there always gives me a sense of homecoming - home in an elemental way. Until I first saw Glencoe I had no template for how a landscape ought to be. After time among those mountains, the hills of my native Leicestershire lost substance, they seemed like cardboard cutouts.
Conversely, being in Scotland increased my sense of being English (even though back in England folk started not understanding my Scottish accent!). I get a sense of my native culture only from the perspective of having left it, for it becomes muffled back on English soil.
I appreciated Glasgow's approach to the Arts. Practitioners of all forms, novels, painting, sculpture, film, acting, poetry etc, all meet and share some sense of common purpose. There was more cross-fertilization than I have known elsewhere.
I wanted my new bio of J. S. Haldane, Suffer & Survive, to give due substance to the Scottish aspect of the man's life. As the Sunday Herald notes of Haldane, 'if Goodman's thesis holds water, he deserves to be up there with legendary Scots such as James Clerk Maxwell and Alexander Graham Bell.' I wanted others to read the story and make such claims rather than do so myself (for I am obviously partial), so I'm pleased to see the Herald set the ball rolling: Scotland is indeed truly remarkable for the rosta of pioneering geniuses it has sent into the world.
George Rose's Herald review is an intelligent and informed one, which draws out many Scottish highlights of Haldane's story. I've admired these Scottish renditions - Bob Flynn explores further Scottish angles in his review for the Scotsman - and I am grateful for the fulsome welcome Scotland has afforded the book as one of its own.
Scotland is one of the communities to which the book especially belongs. One challenge of bringing out such a book is bringing it to the attention of a diverse range of communities and special interest groups. In tours of the bookstores, I have found it largely filed as popular science. True enough - but it's also the story of mining, of diving, of the First World War, it's an Oxford story, a German story, a tale of the Rhondda Valley, a medical history. We've worked to get the book into the mining museums, but the best chance of reaching wider has been the review coverage. Whether reviewers loved my telling of the story or not, they have all had a great run at telling compelling parts of the Haldane story. I wanted my book to say 'Hey, this is a great man. Consider him!' That story was unknown till now - and I'm delighted that Haldane's own life has come out of these reviews spectacularly well. Occasionally people have run with the eccentric angle, a 'human guinea pig' take which he would have deplored (he had a dislike of sensation seekers), but it soon becomes clear that this man had exceptional depth.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Write Guide: Mentoring - and a Two-Book Month


As Suffer & Survive (my biography of J. S. Haldane) slips into the world this month, another book slips into proper existence. The Write Guide: Mentoring, published by New Writing North, I co-wrote with Sara Maitland. Sara had co-written before, even co-writing a novel Arky Types with Micheline Wandor, and I can see why she has such a track record in writing partnerships, being terrific to work with.
Sara now runs the mentoring section of The Literary Consultancy, and I first came to know her when she brought me into her Crossing Borders fold, mentoring African writers under a scheme run by Lancaster University and the British Council.
Our own experience of mentoring provided a good platform, but we both learned a great deal by going out and interviewing the leading practitioners in the field. The book comes in three sections: for mentees and emerging writers; mentors; and managers.
It's pleasing to see a blurb from Pat Barker on the back cover: 'Mentoring is an important area of development for writers. I'm very pleased that New Writing North are publishing this guide, which is not only an indispensable tool for writers, but highly readable too.'
We aimed to make the book engaging rather than dry. A roadshow will be introducing the book, alongside this whole concept of mentoring for creative writing (I believe this is the first such book in the world), around the country over the next two months ... check the front page of my website for my own events on that.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Oh to be in England - a day out in Berkhamsted


It's marvellous how a half-hour trip from London's Euston station can lead you into a traditional English world. Right by the station is a motte and bailey castle, begun by the brother of William the Conqueror in 1066. Its moat is to one side of the railway line, the barges manoeuvering up the Grand Union Canal are to the other.
A short walk from the station, past grazing horses and a tractor bailing grass, found us walking across Berkhamsted Common. This is ancient heathland, trees, heather and bracken. Our guidebook had long since lost us, but then guidebooks have done most of their work by giving you a starting point. People kept appearing to direct us back on course.

Frithsden Woods is an area of ancient pollarded beeches, some of them 250 years old, now managed by the National Trust. Immediately you are inside the space, once a medieval pasture, you see how rich such unspoiled places are in the wildlife they sustain. Roe deer scampered through the trees to either side, while a jay sent a tawny owl swooping to the safe protection of a tree.

Then back down to the town and a garden fete, run by the local Lions Club. Does any other nation hold such fetes? This large event many of the classic ingredients - a barrel organ greeting you on the way in, a dog show, tombola stalls, tradjazz band (should have been a brass band for tradition, but not bad going, Jaguar cars, a marquee for tea and cakes, a coconut shy, and of course a Punch & Judy. It was beautiful to be out among happy families on a sunny afternoon.
I bought a couple of old paperbacks, and read Katherine Mansfield's story 'The Garden Party' on the train home, weeping quietly at its close as we drew into Euston station. A perfect day out!

Walking to Bunyan's Oak

Books lead me places I never expected to go. Following Christopher Somerville's Walks in the Country on Sunday so us pacing around from the Bedfordshire village of Harlington, first stop Bunyan's Oak. It's a gnarled dead giant, wrapped by an elder tree, under which John Bunyan preached before his arrest, going on to write the Pilgrims' Progress in jail.
We're off to Berkhamstead today (the miserably named 'Bank Holiday Monday' here in England), to traipse around an area of medieval beech wood. I realized long ago that one of my favourite aspects of any novel is that they take me outdoors. Guidebooks do this in a very practical way.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hugh Miller & Cromarty


A little National Trust for Scotland emblem on a map, marked 'Hugh Miller's Cottage', drew us off route and onto the edge of the Black Isle - a spit of land to the north of Inverness in the North East of Scotland. Cromarty is one of those names that have special resonance in the British Isles, featuring n the daily litany of the shipping forecast broadcast on the radio.
I'd never heard of Hugh Miller before, but prompted by the map I had picked up one of his books in the exquisite little bookstore in Stromness. He was a 19th century stonemason-cum-geologist who made epochal discoveries of fossils on the Cromarty shoreline, wrote books, and wrote and edited a newspaper called the Mission - a phenomenal writing achievement. He is supposed to have given the name 'Free' to the Free Church of Scotland.
So a fine man - and I'm a sucker for writer's cottages. The wee white thatched house of his birth is next to the more substantial home of his early married life, before his shift to Edinburgh.
So here is a town doing what I believe towns should do - honouring its writer. This honouring of the writer brought me to the town - and how beautiful it is. It's just far enough back from the tourist trail not to have been overrun, and still has a very real 19th century feel to it, but clearly with its active community. Perhaps the most pleasing town I have come to know on early impression. A fine walk takes you around the headland, and up through woodland to higher ground.
Now when I hear 'Cromarty Firth' on the forecast, the wind, fogs and rain and occasional dash of sunshine have an image to play around in my head.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Alan Ayckbourn and Scarborough


Maybe it's part of my moving house six times in this twelve month period, but I've become enamoured of writers who become defined by a location. I appreciate that sense of identity with place - John Fowles in Lyme Regis, George Mackay Brown in Stromness, Paul Bowles in Tangiers. My own one hint of permanence remains our place in the French Pyrenees, a home for thirteen years now, somewhere that has changed around us but carries ancient rhythms. true home remains our place in Santa Fe, though for various reasons that is on the market at the moment.
So I was glad in visiting Scarborough to get to visit the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Alan Ayckbourn arrived in the town fifty years ago, and a current production sees the revival of his West End hit from forty years ago, Relatively Speaking.
It's curious how a play of 1967 is now a period piece, just as much as Noel Coward's plays. It's an engaging play still though, tightly written, a gentle farce of misunderstandings but characters drawn to have real pathos. I go to an evening of stand-up comedy, I laugh a lot, yet somehow I emerge drained rather than restored. A good evening of comedy theatre has a different effect, it does cheer me.
The play was originally written to cheer holidaymakers seeking to come in from the rain. That was even more necessary this summer. Ayckbourn's plays all get their first airing in this theatre-in-the-round which he built out of an old cinema. The theatre has a policy of producing nothing too daring, knowing its audience (unlike the Drum Theatre in Plymouth, which has a youth audience to appeal to and likes a sniff of danger). The evening was quite jolly and comfortable - and sold out.
By the way, if you head that way, I recommend the excellent Cafe Fish for a meal beforehand - worth a trip to Scarborough in itself.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On Being Reviewed

I thought about not looking at the reviews for my new biography of John Scott Haldane, Suffer & Survive. maybe next time.

It really is an up and down thing. Up with the Literary Review, down with the Sunday Times, up again with the Times.

Lynne Truss in the Sunday Times was an odd one, attacking me for my use of particles, focusing on a single clause. Oh well. As e. e. cummings wrote:

who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you

Then came the Times of the day before. Phew and hooray. Not only was the review by Peter Smith well written, it was kind and generous. Way beyond and above all that, he actually bothered to recognize what I was trying to do. I felt fulfilled. Being 'seen' in that way makes work worthwhile. As P. D. Smith, Peter Smith recently brought out his own book Doomsday Men, and took his doctorate in science and literature. What a sound step by the Times, and its splendid Saturday literary pages run by the admirable Erica Wagner, to give a book to a reviewer who is an expert in its field.

Still, reviewing is an odd business and I've not always been kind myself. V. S. Pritchett had a rule only to review what he could say something nice about. Not a bad rule, really.

(The picture is of J.S.Haldane (in the far right corner) in his lab set up at the top of Pikes Peak in 1911, courtesy of the Oxford Physiology Lab)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Yorkshire Sculpture Park - Elisabeth Frink and James Turrell

Back in 1983 I spent a week on a Grotowski theatre workshop at Bretton hall in West Yorkshire. The surrounding parkland supported what was then a fledgling Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I collected fallen branches one afternoon and arranged my own sculpture - no hope for permanence, but some hope that next time someone cut the lawns they wold mow around it.
Passing south on the M1 the other day, we took the chance to journey into the space again. I've fallen in love with Elisabeth Frink's work lately ... most recently her shepherd with flock near St Paul's Cathedral. The Elisabeth Frink courtyard held these wonderful figures - I can see where Antony Gormley got his notion of naked male statues. While his are all of himself, I like the individuality and wildness of Frink's pieces.
Then on down to the new James Turrell installation, a transformation of the Deer Shelter into a space for contemplating the sky. You sit on a bench and lean against the walls of an inverted pyramid, so you can look up at the neat square cut into the ceiling. It was a place for reverence - though amusingly silence barely reigned. A group of women kept up voluble chatter, and when they left two men laying flat on their backs discussed the effects of every shift of light in their loud Yorkshire voices.
A friend is working as a photographer and filmmaker on the lifelong project of Turrell's out in the Arizona desert, where he is carving a similar 'light space' out of a volcano. Sitting in Yorkshire, I got to comprehend some of the reverence with which she holds this work. This had the sacred aspects of a kiva, they sky above as an ever shifting and wondrous artwork.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Leicester City F.C.

Back to my roots this afternoon - across London to the Crystal Palace v. Leicester City match.
It's a tribal thing. I weaned myself for some Saturday afternoons in my late teens, jumping on my moped and heading off to matinées at the Nottingham Playhouse and Leicester Haymarket theatres. Today's choice though was a performance of Gaslight, of football. Football won. Maybe I've regressed. Here's to regression.
Most spectacular sight was a 300 pounder, stomach tattooed with an image of Elvis's head, his own head shaved, gold bicycle chain around his neck, topless and impervious to the wind and rain, spitting magnificently across three rows of seats at halftime. thee floodlights were switched on around 4pm - there's nothing like a summer game!
2-2 if you're interested - and some hopes for Leicester with their brand new team for the season, paid for by an amiable multi-millionaire. Some gutsy play with failings. I check Leicester's website at least daily for updates. It's my secret life.
I have some literary support. The writer Julian Barnes left Leicester when he was four, but still calls himself a supporter.
Here's The Scotsman's review for Suffer & Survive: the Extreme Life of Dr J. S. Haldane.

New pieces on the web

Author material for Suffer & Survive is now up on the Simon & Schuster site.

Included are a couple of new pieces of writing by me. One is a Q&A, part of a house style for S&S in which their authors respond to questions about writing and reading.

Another is a new essay, 'Why Haldane?', in which I discuss how I came to write the book.

Then, if your appetite is whetted, you can read a generous excerpt, the entire opening chapter.

Happy reading. I'm happy to follow up on any comments you might post here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Edinburgh Book festval

So it worked ... the first ever event at the Edinburgh Book festival in which the subject of the book being presented was born, raised and married in the same venue as the festival - Charlotte Square.
The whole event was especially wonderful for me, as I started the morning in that very home of John Scott Haldane - 17 Charlotte Square. Now one of three buildings forming a law firm's headquarters, it has been lovingly, and expensively, refurbished. Most moving for me was to stand in the marble hallway and look up the flight on flight of the solid wooden staircase, up through the salons to the nursery floor from which the children looked down.
A fine and knowledgeable crowd turned up - well 'crowd' was stretching it but this was a plucky bunch. The fact that my event was left out of the programme, and that my own phone order for tickets the previous week was rebuffed with the erroneous information that the event was sold out, did not deter them.
The talk went well, the questions were incisive, and books finally appeared for the signing. They were found in the wrong author's box - the confusions around my talk intensified by the fact that the other Martin Goodman was giving a talk the following day (I know of people who went there by mistake).
Freshly arrived in the author's yurt, a lady jumped up to greet me. She was Rosemary, and was set to chair my talk. She had her questions prepared, drawing on the parallels between my book and present-day events in Israel and Palestine. Well, I thought, I'm sure we can come up with something. Haldane visited the Holy Land in the last months of his life, and worked on the oil wells in Iran and Iraq. He signed a petition arguing against the Nazi government's treatment of Jewish scientists in academia. At a stretch, we could bring in his involvement in the first concentration camps, saving thousands of lives by improving the rations in those Boer War camps. Israel-Palestine was not the most obvious line to take as regards Haldane, but then readers must find in a book whatever they need to find.
Then, the penny dropped. Rosemary thought she was greeting the other Martin Goodman, the specialist in Roman and Hebrew history.

Computer gremlins


Hello again.
I'm fresh back in London from the Orkneys, the Edinburgh Festival, and a quick sweep of northern Britain (earning some plaudits for a green 'holiday at home' but for the 2,000 miles added to the car's clock). Time of course to post a flurry of messages with all those pictures I have taken along the way. Only Blogger is playing up and it ain't possible!
So the return to computers and their miserable hold over the working day proceeds with its usual stumbles.
I made it out onto West End Lane here in West Hampstead his morning, for a pleasingly face-to-face interview with David Crozier of the Ham & High (for a feature on my Haldane book to be run on August 30th). David was pleased to get out of the office for no work could be done there at all this morning - their computers were down!
I dropped into West End Lane books while out there, to sign whatever copies they had got in. It's a fine little store but sometimes I suspect the 'support your local bookstore' angle is overplayed. I've been buying there regularly for a more than a year now, have told them about my book and taken in copies, yet still I appeared as a stranger and my book was not stocked.
Better news elsewhere on that front ... all Waterstones stores have copies in (surprisingly shelved as 'popular science') so I've been signing away on visits there. Even the North Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough had a couple of copies in, so the random visit test of availability worked well.
Maybe the lack is simply in West End Lane. I chose the cafe 'Bagels' as a quiet venue for today's interview, then learned why it might be so quiet. They were all of out of water.
Perhaps even the water supply's linked to computers nowadays.

Later the same day ... Seems it wasn't Blogger after all but my own hosting package. Sorry if you've found it hard to get in of late.
In the meantime I've just carried the holiday spirit into the cinema, racing along with The Bourne Ultimatum. I love that Robert Ludlum trick of getting characters into impossibly tight situations, then somehow getting them out again. This film has one of those scarce memorable lines from films too ... 'He drove off the roof.'
And after the film Books etc managed my 'do they stock it?' question for my Suffer & Survive, pulling five copies out of the window display for me to sign.

(The picture, finally, of Scarborough beach, and the ever-faithful donkeys, rides for kids only at two quid a piece)

Monday, August 13, 2007

From Edinburgh

Just a wee note from Edinburgh - (so yes, I did emerge from the hard hat dive in Stromness harbour, a fine if tiring jaunt in which I'm told I broke endurance records ... not knowing when to turn round, I guess).
Startling to be in a metropolis again after the Orkneys ... I'll be catching up on postings about there, with pictures, when I'm back in London at the weekend. I'm settled into Channings (nice to be treated so nicely by the Book festival, with an acre of bathroom) ready for my 10.30 Haldane presentation in the morning. I phoned for tickets myself last week, to be told it's sold out. Nice to have a crowd. if you're coming, I look forward to meeting you there!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Drinking, feasting and writing

South Ronaldsay has an acellent fish restaurant, The Creel in the village of St Margaret's Hope, which hosted a celebration dinner for James and myself on the launch of Suffer & Survive. (Lovely review in Saturday's Times - more on the weird psycho-pathology of Lynne Truss of Sunday's review later!)
So we splurged on a fine Italian white - wine becoming a sadly occasional treat for me of late, since it inevitably leaves me awake at night for a couple of hours at the very least.
I used last night's awake hours to read a brief biography of Pessoa - a blog of last year focused on another memorable meal in his favourite Pisbon restaurant, when we found ourselves in the midst of a meeting of the Pessoa Society. I was intrigued by his 'heteronymy', writing as different characters - then realized I spend much of my own waking hours performing the same trick.
Pessoa died young of liver failure, absinthe a favourite tipple. I appreciate how my extra-sensitivityy to alcohol is sparing me that particular course.
Hopefully this is not my last ever email ... I follow Haldane's self-experimental route 90 minutes from now, hard hat diving in Stromness pier. Adrenaline surges.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

History in the Orkneys

Sandcastles just don't cut it in the Orkneys. Kids work hard to line the shore with minature stone circles and chambered cairns. It's a beautiful reflection of the Neolithic sites up above.
This has been a grand weel of roaming, stepping back into history. It's rare indeed to step out of such places as Maes Howe and be told that those who built it 5,500 years ago looked out on much the same scenery as we are seeing today.
Whether the birds will be the same in years to come is less sure. We did a bird walk with Andy Knight, manager of the RSPB reserves here ... fields arranged carefullly to keep the corncrake from extinction in the islands, but the breeding of seabirds now tragically low for the fifth year in a row. We are late in the season, but have only eyeballed the one thick white cliff-faced ball of a fulmar chick so far.
Kirkwall is thronged with folk from two cruise liners today. Our second week is set to be quieter and more remote, allowing slow walking and reading time down in South Ronaldsay (Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein proving my surprisingly racy read just now). I managed a mini signing of my new Haldane bio Suffer & Survive in the Orcadian Bookshop this morning, four copies now nicely on display. Hatchards on Piccadilly have ordered in a handsome 30 such signed copies (done in Simon & Schuster's HQ before I left). Let's hope the review promised in tomorrow's Sunday Times helps shift them (a fine one in the current Literary Review).
I'm stepping back in time in a different way next week ... following in Haldane's footsteps and doing a hard hat dive in Stromness harbour on Wednesday afternoon, in ancient equipment bought from the internet in Russia. A good dose of my own self-experimentation - though I won't match the bravado of Haldane's own plunge to forty feet. He did his despite being a non-swimmer!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A Postcard from Orkney

Orkney is a grand place to blow your mind clean and fresh - the caravan rocking in the gusts off Scapa Flow. A terrific day yesterday walking round Marwick Head, few birds nesting but spirited spearing dives of skuas and fulmars and the brilliany scissoring of gannets.
Today was Stromness, walking the environment of the current book-on-the-go, the life of the Orkney poet and storyteller George Mackay Brown. A fine book to read in loco, especially the early chapters with their tales of the islands (somewhat less interesting are the abortive love affairs and the alcholic binging). Wandered the extravagantly fine Pier Arts Centre too, spry and light-filled in its new 3.5 million pound refit. A pleasing stretch of town - though WHY do the locals smother the beauty of the stone in their houses with stucco?
We're geared for anything now ... reclothed ourselves for winter on the first day in Kirkwall, but back down to one layer today. It's pleasing to see how quickly I can still adapt to not working.