Monday, January 29, 2007

French break

I'm off to France today, chasing a removals van down to the French Pyrenees where we have a home. It's a case of out with the old and in with the not so old down there, losing the furniture that lived with us through the years the house was a building project.
Once the boxes are in I'll sit amongst them - for this is also the week of finishing my Haldane biography. I've slimmed my materials from box and shelf loads to one tidy file to take with me. Soon my mind will be spared the task of jumping between fifty sources every day.
Hopefully the village dog awaits, as he makes it through one more winter ... Ugo, also known to us as Bernie, has been a constant factor these last twelve years, moving onto our window ledge and coming on every walk. The picture shows him looking down on the village.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Shows by pals

Maybe a personal record Thursday through Friday ... seeing three shows by three pals in 24 hours.

First was Wolfe Bowart, performing his La La Luna as part of the London mime festival. It was on at the Purcell Room, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on in the Queen Elizabeth Hall next door. The video screen showed the orchestra at work. Coming out from La La Luna they were still at work, looking exactly the same. It was good to have laughed at such a quirky show in betweentimes ... one fun piece pictured, Wolfe entering a balloon.

Next up at the Actors Centre, a rehearsed reading of a play in progress by Iain Heggie, his adaptiation of Bukowki's novel Hollywood. Bracing stuff, great verbal play (about 80% of the daolgue coming from Bukowski), a Scheister and Flywheel type of energy but tremendously more scatalogical, strong performances and real fun.

Then on to Frank McGuinness's There Came a Gypsy Riding at the Almeida ... the pal this time Imelda Staunton, a blisteringly fine performance as a tough mother coping with her child's suicide. A very funny role by Eileen Atkins too. Fine one-liners in the play, though in the end it did not add up to a great deal for me ... too much sprawling emotion, too much left unexplored.

Best of the three? The Heggie. But then I'm a writer so am voting for all of that wild and free wordplay. The other pieces were more self-conscious.

Friday, January 26, 2007

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson

A cache of letters from J. S. Haldane to d'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (he with the beard, caught in the act of botanizing) has just come my way. They add some fine touches, especially for the final section of my Haldane life story. I enjoy this aspect of writing, having the book essentially written yet finding touches and details to inject into different passages and enliven them. I use the same technique in fiction.
D'Arcy Thompson was a wonderful man. His masterwork was 'On Growth and Form' and he has the world record for time spent in a professorial chair. Born round the corner from J. S. Haldane they shared an Edinburgh childhood together, and Haldane's whole subsequent life.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Haldane in Constantinople - 1936

The awaited email came through from my editor last night - subject: delivery.
I'm homing in, just entered the last chapter of my book on J. S. Haldane. He never let up - this photograph sees him on the walls of Constantinople in the last month of his life, at the end of a vigorous round the world working tour. The aim for this last chapter is that it also goes expansive, giving something of his visionary breadth.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'

The curent London Review of Books sees Philip Connors review Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The review places the novel in the context of McCarthy's early books, and specializes in pointing out the religious symbolism in this new one.
The symbolism becomes obvious once it's pointed out. The tale is of a father and boy on a journey through an apocalyptic landscape, the sun smeared from sight, ash dropping like snow on the road. They head for the west coast, for some unknown reason, avoiding cannibals along the way. The book is old-fashioned in drawing on fears of military rather than environmental devastation , but in a country waging hopeless war with recent memories of ash from the World Trade Cetnre choking its biggest city , it is understandable that the imagination should seek this route. The fact that the apocalypse is never explained fits with current notions of terror, the threat of a devastating unknown.
Connors points out the way the boy is a Christlike figure, and how McCarthy includes his regulara 'gnomic prophet' figure. I'd missed those referebces. What did strike me about the book, and surprised me given McCarthy's reputation for grimness, was the its sentimentality. The little kid was never real, might occasionally sulk but never flash out, it was all about the father and his sacrifice and their love. I might have bought in to the religious symbolism once, but no more. This strand of the book now just reads like sentiment. In his focus on the cosiness of the father / son stuff McCarthy has managed, bizarrly, to present a soft-focus Hallmark Apocalypse.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Haldane correspondence

Here's what I've been working with - an example of a letter by J. S. Haldane on his Cherwell notepaper. Happily I've been fine with his handwriting, only coming unstuck when it comes to unfamiliar names. His wife, mind you, wrote a magnificently large and often indecipherable scrawl.
This letter can be yours ... just find $1200 or so and contact Jeremy Norman at, who very kindly supplied me with a transcript for my work.

Hampstead Theatre

The stage at the new Hampstead Theatre is grand, broad high and close with the steepest of rakes. I don't strike lucky with its plays though. Last night's disappointment was Nell Leyshon's Comfort Me With Apples. It was heaped with awards and good reviews when it was last on, and has come back for a new production and tour. Maybe the second half improved, for we were well gone by then. A really poor production and one of those plays when getting loud and emotional about buried personal issues constitutes drama. Supposedly to be taking us into the truth about rural life, it starts with a village idiot character. The first half had not one arresting line of dialogue.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Things you didn't know about Taplow

I've been like a dog circling its sleeping place these past few days, working my way into the J. S. Haldane world of 1916 onwards. After years of assembling materials my working method has been to go a chapter at a time, re-reading everything until the shape of the story settled into my head. I've just taken a break to edit what has gone before, and on we go - the final years.
It stays impressive to me how seemingly arcane snippets of the Haldane story turn out to be someone else's obsession. This photograph of the Canadian Hospital in Taplow comes from the hospital's own memorial site.
The hospital was a project of the wealthy Astors in the neighbouring Cliveden estate. J. S. Haldane wandered into its history in early 1917, when he worked with the Candain gas victims recovering there. From this work stems the deep oxygen treatment we use in hospitals to this day. Medical advances are one of those few good things which emerge from wars.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The poetry of ventilation in 19th century ships

J. S. Haldane worked on an Admiralty Committee looking into the ventilation of ships. The committee’s 1913 report was labelled ‘Top Secret’, never expected a wide readership, but a passage recalling those older ships is so achingly beautiful it is worth recording it here (I’m trimming my Haldane biography just now, and sadly this piece dropped away). Like Haldane, naval commanders had ridden the crest of a technological wave out of the 19th century. In the same way that he constantly referred to scientists of the past, the naval committee could reflect on glory days. Not all advances were improvements. The ventilation of ships was to a fair extent afforded by the natural play of the vessel with its environment:

‘In the days of sailing ships natural methods were employed, and except in the presence of gales at sea the methods were fairly efficient; for in harbour the large and numerous gun-ports afforded excellent perflation, the yawning hatches provided good means of exhaust, and windsails carried pure air unpolluted with smoke and coal dust into the lowest parts of the ships. At sea in all but very bad weather she rode the waves and could carry her hatches, and at least some of her lee parts, while the sails deflected a stream of air down the hatches which were protected from spray by high bulwarks. Her stout wooden sides kept her warm in cold climates, and cool in hot weather. Whether the ship was at anchor head to wind or at sea there was a fresh flow of air fore and aft in the main and lower decks unobstructed by watertight bulkheads. The orlop deck was dark and ill-ventilated, but only a few officers were berthed, and there were no Ship’s Company messes on this deck. Moreover officers and men worked almost entirely in the open air, and so very little time was spent there.’

The full report can be found in the archives of Wolfson College, Oxford, including a deputation sent out to review ships of the US navy. The picture, from 1885, comes from here.

a prophecy

This is off my normal beaten track - but I lay in bed the other night with what felt like a prophecy. Barack Obama for the next US president.
He'll beat Condoleeza Rice in the election. That bit's not got quite the same prophetic feel ... I couldn't puzzle at the time how she could wrest enough time from the day job to establish a campaign. Then John Negroponte was named as her deputy - to free her up for 2008.
My prophecies can fall flat, but I'll keep to this one for the relief it brings.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

library borrowings

I'm just back from my library (West Hampstead), two books under my arm, boosting someone else's earnings for this year. Anyone in the London Camden region wanting to boost mine in return, two copies of my novel Slippery When Wet are available in the system.
My PLR (public lending right) returns are now in. Slippery has been my little earner for last year .... 794 loans from libraries nationwide in the five months that were counted since its issue . I've five books on the list, though one (my first novel On Bended Knees from 1992) has just dropped out of the system - shame.
It looks like 2008 till I get a significant income from this source, since both my books this year will come out after their early summer registration date. I've used the money to buy books in the past. This year I've gone cunning. My books are borrowed from the library rather than bought, and I spent the PLR money on a halfprice unlined moleskin jacket from John Lewis sale. With jeans and a t-shirt, it's the perfect writer's outfit.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Sofia Gubaidulina at the Barbican

First sighting was of the lady in her black velvet trouser suit cutting paths across the vast foyer of the Barbican, a blonde tapping her shoulder occasionally to keep her on direction, the composer chewing all the fingers of her right hand. next was as Sofia Gubaidulina took to the stage to bow to the applause, her dark eyes shining.
Last weekend was the Barbican's 2oth January composer weekend, the first given to the work of a woman. The music was extraordinary (we went to a concert a day). Most effective for me was the first part of the world premiere or the 'Nadeyka' Triptych, a piece in memoriam of Guabadulina's dead daughter, GidonKremer playing 'The Lyre of Orpheus'. I had wanted to see Kremer live for some time, with his ensemble the Baltica Kremerata ... the playing was electric, the piece astonishing, quavering unknown sounds, the solo violin merging in wholly new ways with the strings around it. Gubaidulina is a mystic .... I came up with a word in a dream the other night, 'seerwycke' or 'seerwick', the application of mystical powers, and she was doing that, the music was clearly a psychic workover, bass and treble notes doing their canny stuff, opening up different parts of you, one of those times when you sit in a concert hall and have been inverted somehow, what was deep brought to the surface, weakened and strengthened at the same time, gently weeping.
Normally that happens and that's it, it can't happen again for a while. But by the third part of the evening, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and 'A Feast During the Plague', a rousing loud piece which included recorded rock drumming as though Gubaidulina's daughter was imposing her own favourite music from some heavenly sound system, the magic was worked again, the head and body thrilled to it all.

Friday, January 12, 2007

doc martin

Did it! Up to Lancaster yesterday for my Viva in defence of my PhD thesis. A thoroughgoing grilling for two hours by my examiners Graeme Harper and Jo Baker, on the novel first and my critical thesis afterwards. Then out of the room and a wait to be called back for the decision.
I passed ... just some corrections of typoes to do now. Phew. For all it was squeezed into Lancaster University's somewhat dystopian warren of corridors, rooms and building projects, the occasion very much had the sense of a deep ritual.
I had never thought of novels as icebergs till now but maybe they are akin, just one eighth showing above the surface. That was the comment afterwards ... that the viva process showed so much existing under the surface of the novel, all that life experience and research and crafting amd decision-making and reading and redrafting and thinking and emotional heft, maybe like the gallons of fuel and the petroleum industry that powers a journey in a mini.
At some point I shall summon the energy to push the novel, Ectopia, out into the commercial world. And urge my biography to a rapid conclusion. But first a sip of morning tea and a bite of a celebration pain aux raisins.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bradbury and 451 - let the novel run

About seven years ago I joined hundred of others to see Ray Bradbury. Powered by a walking stick as he entered stage at the Los Angeles Book Fair, the stick became something of a wand, the man a magician. He told tales of his childhood. of his career, and somehow swirled us all into that magical fairground imagination of his.
I re-read Fahrenheit 451 last night. One curious aspect of the book is that it became something entirely other in my memory of reading it. In fact it seems I am remembering my own unwritten story that Bradbury's conjured me into writing - another bit of Bradbury magic.
I'm off in a few minutes to Lancaster, defending my PhD thesis which is built around my dystopian novel Ectopia. It has many strong and curious parallels with Fahrenheit 451, but one that has just struck me involves the way I freed the principle character in my book, Bender, to discover his own story. He found his own definition in running, securing his life by the decisions he made as he faced various circumstances met with along the way. in bradbury's 1993 preface he says of his lead character and the process of writing:
"'Go' I said to Montag, thrusting another dime into the machine (he was renting a typewriter by the hour), 'and live your life, changing it as you go. I'll run after.'
Montag ran. I followed.
Montag's novel is here.
I am grateful that he wrote it for me."
Gratitude that my character lived, his grand book came into being - that's the mode I mean to take up to Lancaster with me. I'll let you know how it played at the end of the week.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

On the way to Iona

This Victorian picture, called 'On the way to Iona', is my desktop image. I normally tire of such things after a week or so but this one abides. It has the quality of a short story, a piece by Chekhov perhaps, so much you might say about the characters, their clothes, their relationship, their day-out. (These folk are somehow related to my biographical subject J. S. Haldane ... when I step from biography back to fiction who knows, maybe I'll dream up the story.) From the size of the boat I presume this is the Oban to Mull leg of the journey. The five minute crossing between the Inner Hebridean islands of Mull and Iona is often cancelled even now because of stormy seas. I presume the 19th century version of the Iona ferry used sails.

The colour picture of Iona is from my own brief island hopping of summer 2006.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Aldous Huxley and eugenics

West End Lane Bookstore's first sale of 2007 was Brave New World - I'm about to defend my own dystopian thesis so reckoned it was time for a re-read.
I was shocked to learn from the introduction to my copy that Aldous Huxley was a eugenicist. He switched tack when Hitler gave eugenics a bad name, but told the BBC in 1932 that eugenicist measures could arrest the 'rapid deterioration... of the whole West European stock.'
I had never thought that Huxley might have been setting up his 'hatcheries' as a better model for the human race. Truly Brave New World never even tries to evoke sympathy for the gamma classes, the lower orders often spoken of as 'simian'. Readers accept his book as a dystopian classic, an example of how corporate values and an obsessive focus on consumerism can distort and debase humanity, and they are not wrong to do so. Somehow the process of creation led Huxley away from trumpeting his own eugenicist beliefs and writing something with universal resonance. Go deep enough, and it seems a writer's books can overcome the squalor of a writer's intellect.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Trees and religions

I woke in the night from some dream of trees, and lay thinking.
Britain's stories, its myths, take place in forests. It has puzzled me for some time how desert religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism, born of the heat and blaze of the Middle East, took root in northen climates. Somehow the lack of trees made prophets suspect man had an extra special relationship with God. With trees around you, notions of man being extra special feel wanting. Instead you have a chance of feeling at one with other living things., with all aspects of creation.
The Buddha, of course, achieved enlightenment under a tree - but then he did not go on to found a religion as such. Buddhism has no god, promotes no sense of man being extra special, but leads to a sense of harmony with all creation, to an appreciation of our whole environment with ourselves as simply one part of a whole.
Living in London, we head for walks to Hampstead Heath and walk along an avenue of lime trees - immediately the air is fresher and cooler, life is happier. On the land in Santa Fe we have one especially sacred spot, a gove of ponderosa trees. My pilgrimage up Guadalupe Mountains, a revelatory time featured elsewhere on this site, found douglas firs to be crucial to the route. So many periods in my life I have found support from trees.
The Christian symbol, the cross, is a dead tree. America's rulers act in the name of Christianity, and seek to turn the remaining national forests into lumber.
Trees don't need religion. We need trees.

I took the picture im Summer 2006, two oaks in the circle of standing stones known as Long Meg and her Daughters, featured elsewhere on the site

Friday, January 05, 2007

Iain Heggie and Ostrovsky

Iain Heggie's just popped round for lunch, in London for a break from his writer's residency at RSAMD in Glasgow. He's working on a new series of adaptations / translations of Ostrovsky, about to put four such plays into production, two of them never translated before.
The whole gig also serves as a workshop, priming these plays for some national production. According to Iain, Ostrovsky is the closest writer there is to Shakespeare - while Tolstoy could abide neither Shakespeare nor Chekhov, he loved Ostrovsky. Iain's giving us some of the rhythms of the Scottish voice without using Scots language per se, breaking up lines and fashioning new ways of making actors deliver Ostrovsky's long sentences in a spontaneous way. Sounds like a good bet for the RSC as they seek to break from the purely Shakespearean diet. I love Iain's work for its intelligence, its wit, its briskness and the sheer fun of the language, its earthy love-bound heroes and heroines, its humanity.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

crying for one's own

I have the viva for my PhD coming up next week, so have just re-read the novel part of the thesis, a dystopian novel called Ectopia. It's a tough read at first - not for the prose but for how grim a world it portrays. It's a dystopia after all - Brave New World, 1984 and Clockwork Orange aren't what you'd call fun reads.
It's a while since I last read it, so I have some distance now ... I might never be objective, but the book is compelling. I wept silent tears at the close.
Always a good test that, crying for one's own.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Blue Plaque Tour #1 - The Huxleys of Hampstead

Go into any small French town and you are likely to walk along streets named after the country's writers - even relatively minor figures in the canon. In Britain it's hard even to find a Shakespeare Street or Dickens Road. London does make up for it some way though, with blue plaques affixed to the walls of the London house with which writers and other achievers were most associated.
I spent a merry Christmas Day in the house where J.M.Barrie wrote Peter Pan. Here though is the first in a sequence of houses in my new neighbourhood - the home where the three Huxley boys, Leonard, Julian and Aldous, grew up. It's at 16 Bracknell Gardens in Hampstead.
It was a thrill to find this on my daily walk. Julian became prominent for me as we became friends with his son Francis Huxley, the writer and anthropologist (a neighbour in Santa Fe, now moved to California).
Aldous has the most resonance though. He plays a significant part in my forthcoming J.S.Haldane biography, spending some years as part of the Haldane Oxford household and writing Haldane as the character Lord Tantamount in Point Counter Point. Beyond that, his Brave New World was the Ur-text for my own dystopian novel, Ectopia. My job of the next week is to bring that work into active play in my consciousness - Ectopia was written as part of a PhD thesis: the Viva for that takes place next week. My 2007 is starting with a distinctive dystopian twang.
May yours be distinctly more cheerful!