Tuesday, 23 May 2017

In A Hole In The Ground: Part Four

The story so far: after many adventures in Indonesia, and then in Brisbane and Wollongong, Our Hero sets out to explore Sydney - but ends up in the Outback.

After an enjoyably eclectic breakfast with Bert Roberts in a caff round the corner from where I was staying in Austinmer, NSW ...
Breakfast. Don't look for it: it's not there anymore.
... Bert and I took the commuter train into the centre of Sydney. Just as we were coming in to port, as it were, I got a good if unconventional view of Sydney Harbour.

Sydney Harbour. Not a postcard view.
Here is a close-up of Sydney Opera House, just to show it wasn't a fluke.
Sydney Opera House, so it is.
As you can see from this picture it was raining. Rain isn't the kind of weather one usually associates with Australia, but it does happen now and again, and at intervals during the day I got rather wet. But I digress. Bert and I spent a wonderful time at the Australian Museum where I was introduced to some of the world's finest ethnographical and palaeontological collections. Among many highlights was this ...
This. Recently.
... which mightn't look like much, but is a fossil of one of the earliest animals on Earth to be big enough to shake a stick at (it's about 5 cm across.) The fossil is called Dickinsonia. It is around 600 million years old and comes from the famous Ediacara fauna of the Flinders region in South Australia. Nobody knows what kind of animal Dickinsonia might have been, and the same mystery shrouds many of its contemporaries. The Ediacara fauna was a brief but early flowering of animal life that disappeared, more or less without trace, replaced by the spiny and knobbly animals of the succeeding Cambrian, most of which are more or less recognisable as animals similar to those found today. Fossils of Ediacara age have since been found in many other places, but they were first recognised here, in Australia, the place where wonders are an everyday occurrence.

That evening I gave a talk at the Australian Museum on the theme of The Unknown; and the next day did much the same at the University of Wollongong. But the time soon came to say goodbye to Bert and fly from Sydney to Melbourne, where I hooked up once again with Michael Westaway and joined him in a flight to Mildura, a small town on the Murray River more or less where NSW, Victoria and South Australia meet.
Flying Down To Mildura
At Mildura we hired a truck and hied out into the bush, specifically to Lake Mungo in the Willandra Lakes Region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lake Mungo hasn't had any water in it for at least 15,000 years, but is hugely important archaeologically as several extremely ancient burials have been found here, skeletons of Australians who lived here 30,000 years ago. Here is the view from the veranda of my room at the Lake Mungo Lodge...
Veranda View
... and here is a view of some kangaroos, a mother and joey, glimpsed at the roadside as we crossed the ancient lake bed. Having never seen a kangaroo before I admit I did squeal. A little.
I also took a picture of some emus, or thought I had, but when I looked at the photo these clever birds had disguised themselves as trees. While I was at Mungo I was privileged to have been granted access to some of the archaeological sites by the elders of the three peoples that are custodians of this landscape. These sites are usually off limits to visitors and I offer my thanks to the representatives of the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa and Mutthi Mutthi peoples.

 Sunset at Mungo is breathtaking ...

... as is the road back to Mildura. Only the first 20km from Mildura is paved. The remaining 100km or so looks like this.
The rush hour near Lake Mungo gets into full swing.
Now that, I thought, is a view that typifies Australia, for me. Red, rugged, arid, and almost completely empty. I loved it. Mike did all the driving and deserved the traditional Australian relaxation once we were back in town.
The next day I flew back to Sydney and prepared myself for the long journey home, from the bottom right-hand corner of the map, to the top left-hand corner. My visit to Indonesia was spectacular - to Australia, even more so. I loved Australia and plan to return soon.

I'd like to thank Bert Roberts, Zerina Jacobs and staff and students at the University of Wollongong; Mike Westaway, and colleagues from Griffith University; Darryl Pappin of the National Parks Service at Lake Mungo; the Elders of the Traditional Owners who granted access to some of the sites; Ross Pogley, Jacqueline Nguyen, Robin Torrence and their colleagues at the Australian Museum; Nicola Stern of La Trobe University; the Evans Family, and many others.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

In A Hole In The Ground: Part Three

The Story So Far - After many adventures Our Hero arrives in Brisbane and falls in love with Australia.

I spent Monday 10 April visiting labs at Griffith University in Brisbane, learning about ancient DNA, and a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence Dating (OSL), both of which are proving essential to a matter of strong current interest - that is, how people first made their way to from South-East Asia to that distant southern continent nowadays associated with cold lager, Waltzing Matilda, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.

OSL is used to discover the time when a given buried grain of sand last saw sunshine. This involves extracting the sand from caves, ideally in complete darkness, and - once the sand is back in the lab, pricking out grains, one by one, and placing each one, very precisely, in its own cell in the apparatus, all the while working under deep red light, as in a darkroom. Working in womb-like darkness with the comforting hum of machinery all around sounds rather attractive, but I am not sure it's for everyone.

The campus of Griffith is never far from the subtropical forest of southern Queensland. Here is a view of the environs from high up...
The View from Griffith
... and here is one from lower down.
There be koalas in those thar woods
The picture above looks like it was taken in a deep dark jungle, but appearances are deceptive - it's a wild spot on the Griffith campus. So wild, in fact, that koalas live in these woods, and although they are seen only infrequently, they are allegedly very cute. One university member told me a story of how, when she had paused to admire the view, a koala came out and - get this - hugged her ankle. (The cuteness! It burns!) She was so taken aback that she forgot to take a picture of the occasion.

The next picture is not, however, of a koala, but me, that same evening, in the room above the university pub, giving my talk about The Unknown.
'Science is not about Certainty ... but Uncertainty'
The fact that Griffith has a University Pub is yet another reason to like Australia.

Next day I flew to Sydney to link up once again with Bert Roberts (who I'd last seen in Jakarta). We drove down the coast towards Wollongong. We took the scenic route through the Royal National Park - the second designated national park in the world, after Yellowstone.

Between Sydney and Wollongong, looking south

The coastal scenery was quite breathtaking. In some ways it seems very English (I mean, you can stop for fish and chips in what for all the world looks like a Victorian seaside resort) - but somehow bigger, brighter, newer. And those aren't seagulls on the beach, by the way, they're cockatoos.

Bert gave me a quick whizz round some of the facilities at the University of Wollongong. An unexpected pleasure was meeting Prof. Allen Nutman, who'd just published a paper in Nature on what may be the earliest fossils. These are the dome-like remains of bacterial colonies that lived in what is now Greenland, 3,700,000,000 years ago. These domes are called stromatolites, and they still survive on this planet, most notably in Western Australia. This is what a stromatolite looks like after cooking gently for most of the age of the Earth:
A fossil stromatolite, recently.
So it was that in the space of two days I saw the remains of creatures that died out when the world was still very young, and from just before the dawn of history. Then I had a beer. But Australia's like that. Casually wonderful.

Look out for the next exciting installment, when Our Hero visits Sydney and gets very wet.

I'd like to thank Mike Westaway and all the staff and students at Griffith University, and Bert Roberts and the staff and students at the University of Wollongong. G'day!

Saturday, 22 April 2017

In A Hole In The Ground: Part Two

The Story So Far - Our Hero, having enjoyed several days in Flores and Jakarta, cannot check in for a flight to Australia because the JetStar Asia check-in staff at Jakarta airport says he doesn't have an Australian Visa. 

That was one of the moments in my life I felt physically sick. Who'd have thought it? Britain and Australia share a head of state, a love for rugby league, beer and yeast extract; if I didn't need visas for Indonesia, or, as it happens, Israel, why Australia? I confess I hadn't even bothered to check. However, listen up, my children, any visitor to Australia needs a visa, except, perhaps, if they come from New Zealand. Don't be caught out.

When I recovered I tried to phone the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, who seemed to think it could take some days for me to get a visa. I emailed all my Australian contacts to suggest that the remainder of my trip would have to be cancelled. Then I went to find the offices of KLM to see if I could book a flight home where I would retreat, tail between legs, defeated.

Why KLM? They are my favourite airline, not least because they fly regularly between Norwich and Schiphol, and thence the world, so I rarely have to endure Heathrow. But I soon found more reasons to love them. I found the KLM office in the airport and asked the chap there whether I could buy a ticket home. He could easily have sold me a ticket, a thousand dollars, ker-ching, thank you and goodbye.

Instead, he took an interest in my plight. He inquired as to my situation, and said that all was not lost. I could apply for an Australian Visa online using a website called EasyETA and for a small fee they could have my visa for me within 24 hours. (For a slightly larger fee they could have a visa for me in 20 minutes, though at that moment that function wasn't available.) The KLM man sat me down, gave me a glass of water and the password to the office WiFi, and helped me through every stage of the process. The Australian ETA is like American ESTA - it's not a stamp in your passport, as such, but gets attached to your passport electronically so check-in staff can see you have authority to travel. I applied, offered my thanks, and left.

Unfortunately, the Visa hadn't arrived in time for me to board my flight, so I booked another night at the FM7 Airport Hotel and after many frustrating phone calls to the hotel shuttle service, in the end facilitated by another helpful stranger at the airport information desk, who acted as translator between me and the driver, and even waited kerbside with me until I was aboard - I came back to FM7. That was the moment when I realised that I really should have had more Bahasa Indonesia than terimah kasih.

When I got to the hotel I was more exhausted than I can express.

A long night passed during which the visa arrived, and my contact Michael Westaway of Griffith University in Brisbane (with whom I'd cooked up the whole trip a year before) rearranged my flights.

So it was that I returned to the airport next day: same check in desk, same airline, same flight, same staff - I hoped this wouldn't turn into Groundhog Day. As I queued for the check-in the young man from JetStar Asia recognised me and asked whether I'd gotten my visa. He smiled and said he'd check.

There followed the longest twenty seconds of my life.

Happily all was well and I could board my JetStar Asia flight to Singapore and change for the Qantas red-eye to Brisbane. I didn't exhale until I had passed through Australian customs...
From Jakarta to Brisbane
... and saw Michael's happy smiling face on the other side. Mike immediately whizzed me up to a lookout above Brisbane to admire the whole city. Perhaps it was the release from tension, perhaps the jetlag, perhaps because it really is achingly lovely, but I found Brisbane achingly lovely.
Michael Westaway with Brisbane as a backdrop
The rest of that day - a Sunday - was passed in blessed idleness. Mike let me sleep away the morning at my hotel, and then collected me for an amble along Brisbane's South Bank in the company of an old friend, Olga Panagiotopoulou, who I'd met as a postdoc in London, and is now on the faculty at the University of Queensland, and Gilbert Price of the Queensland Museum. We mooched around the splendid displays at the QM ...
Gilbert, Mike and Olga admire skulls of fossil marsupials at the Queensland Museum
 ... marveling at the remarkable extinct fauna of Australia. The QM excels in displaying real specimens from Queensland, of which there are plenty, with no need to bus anything in from elsewhere. A highlight was this specimen of Diprotodon, a wombat the size of rhino, which grazed the bush until a few tens of thousands of years ago, until driven to extinction by human hunting/climate change/both/neither/instead (delete as applicable)*

Palatal view of Diprotodon. Marvel at those gnashers.

 Like Diprotodon in its heyday we spent the rest of the day browsing and sluicing.

It was quite the best, most relaxed Sunday Afternoon I have spent for a long time. Being Brisbane, it was accompanied by some exotic wildlife. In London, we have pigeons. In Brisbane, there are these ...
Yes, ibises, known locally as 'bin chickens' on account of their scavenging habits. Beady of eye and hungry of bill, they'll have your lunch right out of your hands if you let them. They had warned me about Drop Bears, but the ibises were a surprise.

We kept going until evening fell. I was thrilled to see the bridge illuminated in the colours of Norwich City, until I learned that the Australian Rugby League team is also decked out in the noble green and yellow.

So ended a perfect day, all the more perfect because the day before had been so anxious. The next day, of course, I went to work.

* The causes of the relatively recent extinction of the Australian megafauna is a matter of heated debate. Don't get me started.

I cannot express my gratitude sufficiently to Mike Westaway for pulling several rabbits bilbies out of hats - not to mention the wonderful staff at KLM - and to Olga and Gilbert for sharing a wonderful afternoon in one of the loveliest cities on Earth.

Friday, 21 April 2017

In A Hole In The Ground: Part One

It's always a risk, leaving your own front door, as one hobbit famously told another. You never know where you'll end up. So it was with me on 31 March, with trek-booted feet, rucksack on my back, catching the number 44 bus that stops almost outside our house. The bus took me to Norwich airport and thence to Amsterdam, Singapore and Bali.

Getting off in Bali at night was a riot.
Riotous Bali Airport. Recently.
As soon as you get off the plane you are mobbed by people offering taxis. It took a while to learn that if I phoned my hotel they'd send a shuttle bus for me. I was told this by a very helpful young man at the information desk at the airport who also told me that 'thank you' is terimah kasih in Bahasa Indonesia. This is the only phrase I know in Bahasa Indonesia and it got me a long way, but as events will show I could have done with some more.

I remember almost nothing about my one night in Bali except that I spent it in a very comfy Hilton near the airport and was delivered early next day back to the same airport. So if you were to ask me my impressions of Bali I can only reply that it was dark. My next flight (the fourth in an eventual total of fifteen) was further east to Komodo Airport at Labuan Bajo, on the western end of the long thin island called Flores.

Flight to the Flores

As it happened the flight to Flores was delayed. Still, the airport in Bali is very swish and I had time to buy a new hat (I mislaid my regular hat), have some breakfast, and observe this timely reminder.

Seen in a store in the airport at Bali
The flight to Flores was interesting. It was quite something flying over tropical islands. You could see all the dark green jungle, with the coral lagoons surrounding each one.

Flying Down to Flores

As I left Komodo airport - small but newly built and incongruously modern - I was once again besieged by locals offering taxi services. But I was waiting for a particular driver called Gebi, who works for the archaeology crew working on Flores - my destination. All the drivers know one another, so I just said to anyone I asked that I was 'looking for Gebi'. They all laughed (everyone laughs a lot in Indonesia) and said 'Oh! Gebi!' - and pointed him out. I didn't know it was Gebi, but he came up to me and asked 'Mister Henry?' so I knew I had come to the right place. We were also collecting Dr Hanneke Meijer, a scientist who had come in do some field work.

Flores Interior
Then came the most fun part of the trip thus far - the drive inland to the small town of Ruteng. I am not sure how far this is from the coast, but takes several hours in an SUV, with a rest stop half way. The road is best described as entertaining, with lots of ups and downs and wiggles, avoiding small children, dogs, chickens, buffalo, local buses and swarms of scooters, but as far as I could see all vehicles were in a pristine state without conspicuous dents. Despite the occasionally perilous state of the roads, Indonesians in general will do their best to avoid any kind of conflict and are very considerate road users.

Rice Paddies near Liang Bua
During the drive I had plenty of time to marvel at my first serious exposure to the humid tropics, with Hanneke there to interpret the blizzard of sensory impressions. The vegetation is incredible - it's the kind of place where you find enormous trees which in Britain are only seen as spindly specimens in pots, if at all. Most things I didn't recognize except for several kinds of palm, banana trees, coffee bushes, rice paddies and bamboo - incredible, towering stands of bamboo with stalks as thick as your thigh and towering a hundred feet into the air. Bamboo is used everywhere as a building material - scaffolding, house frames. And so on. Most houses are single-storey shacks made of bamboo frames with panels of woven split bamboo, and roofed with corrugated metal. Most seem to be accompanied by a few banana trees and coffee bushes, as well as chickens, a buffalo, a dog and maybe a pig (although Indonesia is in general a Muslim country, this varies enormously from place to place, Flores is mainly Catholic, especially in the countryside; Bali is largely Hindu).

Ruteng is a very small town of shacks and a few shops, the occasional mosque and an enormous church. The crew stays in a pretty resort hotel called the Spring Hill Resto, really a compound with bungalows scattered around lovely landscaped gardens, and a restaurant. Breakfast is served on your own verandah. I had chicken noodles, local bananas and local coffee. It seemed a bit strange out in the wilds to find beds, showers, aircon and (occasionally) WiFi - until dawn when it became clear that the bungalows are built in front of the backyard of the Indonesian version of chez Gee. The cockerel was up bright and early going cock a doodle doo followed by the pigs going oink oink and the dogs going woof woof, it was like waking up in Old McDonald's Farm.

At Spring Hill Resto
From Spring Hill Resto is another entertaining switchback ride to the reason I was there at all: the cathedral-sized cave of Liang Bua, where the bones of the hobbit people (Homo floresiensis) were discovered in 2003 and which I had the honour of publishing in Nature in 2004 - so it was great to be there, if 13 years later, and meet the researchers, especially the Indonesian ones, who made it all possible.
At Liang Bua Cave

Liang Bua is less a cave than a rock shelter. It's as tall and wide as it is deep, and provides welcome relief from the heat of the day. It has been used for many years as a community meeting place. At one point, it even housed a school. It's quite different from the sudden, unexpected holes in the ground I looked into in Israel in February. It's also much more accessible than one imagines. The road passes right by the entrance (which is, however, shielded from the road by a large taro patch) and the cave is now visited on a daily basis by the more rugged species of tourist.

Matt Tocheri on Indonesian TV
For example, while I was there a tall thin Danish backpacker arrived, and was rewarded by the sight of Matt Tocheri being interviewed by an Indonesian TV crew about Homo floresiensis - a story which, 13 years on, continues to run and run. Even if there is nobody around in the cave, just down the hill is a small museum devoted to the excavations and their significance. The bones Matt used to demonstrate are replicas from this museum. The real hobbit bones are locked up in a safe in Jakarta, of which more later.

Hanneke sorts bones
Meanwhile, I even got to help Hanneke sort out animal bones - mainly bats, three sizes of rats and some birds - much smaller than the bison bones of my Ph.D. days, but identifying bones is like riding a bike. I can still tell my femur from my tibia. Sorting the bones is the easy part. The bones come from sacks of sediment hauled out of the very deep holes in the cave floor (even now, the excavations have not reached bedrock); hauled down the hill to the rice paddies, where they are wet-sieved; and the sieved bone fragments are dried, their location catalogued and examined.

Some of the 2017 Liang Bua field crew, arranged in height order.

So ended two delightful days in the wilds.

The next day I accompanied one of my Aussie hosts, Professor Bert Roberts from Wollongong University, back to Komodo airport for the flight to Jakarta, where we stayed in the FM7 Airport Hotel, but because Jakarta is gridlocked most of the time, it takes a while for the shuttle to get between one and the other, even if it is billed as an airport hotel.
Flores to Jakarta

The hotel was very swanky and ultra modern and decorated in what I'd describe as retro sixties futuristic. It looked like a Stanley Kubrick film set. Quite the culture shock after Flores. It was here that I discovered the hotel laundry as quite a few of my old shmutters were very, very dirty after fieldwork. My clothes arrived next day, not just clean, but good as new, though the staff was puzzled that the socks I had given them were all odd ones, and had to be reassured that this wasn't a mistake.

The next day Bert and I went to ARKENAS, which is the Indonesian archaeological Institute. There Dr Wayhu Saptomo kindly showed me the actual bones of the hobbit.

Dr Wayhu Saptomo shows me the hobbit skull
Meet Bilbo Baggins
Then back to the hotel for me - though Bert went straight to the airport for the red-eye to Sydney, where I was to catch up with him later. As I checked out next morning on the way to the airport, a young man rushed up with my sweater and anorak that I had left in my room - that's what I call customer service!

But things started to unravel when I got to the airport. Early that afternoon I was due to board a flight to Singapore connecting to Australia, but the check-in staff told me I couldn't board because I didn't have an Australian visa. I had no idea I needed one.

Collapse of Stout Party.

Will Our Hero manage to get his visa in time for the flight to Australia? Who was that Masked Man? Who put the Benzedrine in Mrs Murphy's Ovaltine? Tune in next time for another exciting episode of 'In A Hole In The Ground.'

I'd like to thank, in no particular order Thomas Sutikna, Jatmiko, Wayhu Saptomo, Bert Roberts,  Matt Tocheri, Hanneke Meijer, Paige Madison, Gebi and all the crew at Liang Bua, the staff at ARKENAS, the Spring Hill Resto, the FM7 Airport Hotel, and the people of Indonesia for facilitating my visit and making it such a warm and hospitable experience.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Four Elephants And A Turtle

Some time ago - gosh, it was February - I had the immense good fortune to have been invited to take part in a panel discussion at a conference in Israel. The conference was in the resort town of Eilat on the Red Sea. However, I took the opportunity of arriving in Israel several days earlier, and spent those days touring archaeological and palaeontological sites up and down this tiny but fascinating country.

Israel stands on the crossroads of three continents. As such, people have been living there, travelling through the region, trading and invading for hundreds of thousands of years. So although the entire country seems to be no bigger than a supermarket car park, every square inch has been significant to somebody, at some time. Dig a hole anywhere in Israel, and you'll very likely find yourself in an unlooked-for world of antiquity, and dig within that, and you'll find yet other treasures from still earlier epochs. Down, and down, and down - you get the impression that you can keep going down until you meet the four elephants holding up the world, but only because they themselves ride on the back of a turtle.

Just a few examples of many ...

Manot is a small community in the top left-hand corner of Israel. Quite literally - stand on a hill outside the village and you can see, to the north, the border with Lebanon, and, to the west, the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. One day a chap with a bulldozer was digging a trench for a new sewer pipe, and stumbled across a void in the ground. That's when he called Indiana Jones in the form of the Israel Archaeological Service, who rappeled several meters down the hole to find a gorgeous cave, full of the prescribed stalactites and stalagmites, and which had been closed for more than 30,000 years.

Inside Manot Cave.

Once the archaeologists had created a new entrance (the location of the original one is still a mystery) they got to work, excavating several occupation layers, and discovering a human skull which, dating to around 50,000 years old, could have been a relation of the first modern humans to have entered Europe. I clambered, scrambled and slid thirty meters down to the (current) lowest level of the cave, and on the way could glimpse shadowy voids, half glimpsed, still waiting exploration.

Akko - known here as Acre - has been a thriving port and cultural crossroads for time beyond count. Today, it is the only city in Israel in which Arabs and Jews live in approximately equal numbers. Back in the Middle Ages. though, it was Christian,  the very last stronghold of the 200-year Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem until it fell to the Mamluks in 1291. The conquerors razed the city, and what they couldn't knock down, they built over. The Crusader city fell out of time and memory - except for the strange holes that appeared from time to time, in the middle of streets, and some old plans known only to archaeologists. Eventually - and just in the past few years -- Indiana Jones, in the form of the Israel Archaeological Service, dug downwards and found, beneath the current city, the whole Crusader stronghold. And it is vast. Halls, courtyards, streets, passages, churches, shops, even latrines, all built in stupendously monumental style. Those of a Tolkienian bent are inescapably reminded of the Mines of Moria.
Under Akko: 'I Have No Memory Of This Place'

The Medieval knights who fought to reclaim the Holy Land thought that Jerusalem was the very omphalos of the world, the centre round which all else revolved. Even today one can only sympathise with that view. People have lived here for thousands of years, and every part of it is sacred to somebody. The current walls of the Old City, however, are Turkish. The original city, inhabited by the Canaanites and then the Israelites (when it became known as the City of David), is on what is now a steep slope just outside the eastern margin of the walls. This most ancient of Jerusalems has been excavated for decades, but they still keep going down ... and down .... and down. They haven't found the elephants yet, or the turtle. But buried deep undergound are walls made from stones, each the size of a small car, which people can't decide are Bronze Age or Iron Age. There are also tunnels. Quite a few of these. One of them goes from what was once the city to the Gihon Spring of Biblical fame.

A Tunnel. Recently.
Just one last thing.

In the suq in what is currently the Old City is an unremarkable green metal door. Thousands of Jerusalemites and tourists pass this door each day, giving it hardly a second glance. Behind this door is a space, which a shopkeeper in the adjacent lot wanted to renovate to create a restaurant. During the works he knocked through a wall into a hitherto unknown chamber of great antiquity. That's when he called ... you're way ahead of me ... and when the archaeologists arrived they found a 13th-century Crusader building, and, beneath that, an even more hitherto unknown Crusader cellar, full of centuried trash. It was like something out of a Dan Brown novel. And all behind an unremarkable green metal door.

But Israel is like that. Scratch the surface, and you will, all too easily, be catapulted back into history.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

In a Clarke Orbit

This year is the centenary of author, engineer and visionary Arthur C. Clarke, subject of an anniversarial appreciation in Nature by Andrew Robinson. My orbit intersected that of the great man on two occasions.

The first was in 1996 after I'd written a review in Nature on a truly dreadful popcorn movie called Independence Day. Why did movie-makers resort to such barrel-scrapings when so many great SF stories remained unfilmed, I asked? How about Clarke's Childhood's End, which starts in much the same way as Independence Day, with alien spacecraft hovering over Earth's cities, but goes on to be much more interesting? Clarke read the piece and faxed me a table listing all his novels, and when they had been optioned by film-makers. The only ones to get filmed were 2001: A Space Odyssey (and its sequelae), the irony being that 2001 started as a screenplay.

The second was three years later when I drew the short straw to start a new and temporary section of Nature called Futures in which we would run a few SF short stories to usher in the millennium. Like all temporary solutions, Futures has become a fixture, a firm favourite, and has even won an award. Back then, I wanted to start the series with the only SF writer I was sure everyone would have heard of ... Clarke responded to my request for a story by return. (You can read it in this anthology.)

It took a while to set up the new section, so Clarke's story (and, by then, those of several other writers)  had been waiting in the wings for some months before they hit the streets, as it were. In the interim I got the chance to attend a private view at the National Portrait Gallery in London in which the portraits of famous people would be exhibited alongside their subjects. Clarke was there and I got the chance to meet him. I remember that Clarke's first words, after I had introduced myself, were "when's my story going to be published?" That, and his broad Zummerzet accent, undimmed by decades of life in Sri Lanka.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

My Reads of 2016

This year I read 43 books - two more than last year - but looking back at the list I have to admit that my reading has veered somewhat to the lower brow. No major classics, no Dickens, no Iliads or Aeneids, unlike last time. My excuse is that I have been so busy writing my own book this year that reading has been for relief rather than improvement. In short, my requirement has been for Something Sensational to Read on the Train. So with no more ado here is my list of ten Reads of the Year, from tenth placed counting down to the winner, owning that such a list is always somewhat rough given the range of styles and genres. Having said that, a theme emerges, as you'll discover.

10. Andy Weir - The Martian
The book on which was based the engaging Magic Lantern Production, itself memorable for being a space flick without any kind of pretension. Well, the book is just the same. A feelgood read. Or, to be grammatical, a feelwell read. It's all about an astronaut stranded on Mars after his crew takes off without him by mistake; how he survives; and how the crew eventually returns to pick him up.

9. Bernard Cornwell - The Last Kingdom
I got into this after watching the Televisual Emission of the same name. It's a historical novel set in the ninth century tracing the story of a Saxon warrior called Uhtred, son of the Lord of the fortress of Bebbanburg (now Bamburgh Castle in Northumbria), who is betrayed and raised by Danes, and his long quest to retrieve his birthright. This is really an excuse to tell the story of how England was forged from a series of warring kingdoms. We get to know real people such as Alfred the Great and his family, his enemy Guthrum the Dane, and the mix of history and fiction is fascinating. There is a great deal of violence, sex, and violent sex, but unlike the lamentable Game of Thrones there is at least the background of actual history and some attempt at historical accuracy, though whether Alfred actually burned the cakes during his exile in the marshes of Somerset is conjectural. With or without cakes, life back then really was nasty, brutish and short. The possibility of death by disease or slaughter was never far away. Even the grandest mead halls were, by our standards, draughty outbuildings hardly fit for housing cattle. Literacy was rare. Window glass and interior plumbing were unimaginable luxuries. Women were marriageable at twelve and men who lived to see their fortieth birthday were old, and looked it. No wonder that people believed in all sorts of gods, and Uhtred admires the decaying ruins of Roman buildings. The Last Kingdom is in fact the first book in an entire series - Mrs Gee gave me most of it for Christmas last year, and the latest one, The Flame Bearer, for Christmas this year.

8. Alex Clare - He's Gone
It's always great to bruit forth the achievements of one's friends, and goodness, this one is some achievement. I've known the author for years, and that she was busy writing, and her debut is worth the wait (I interview her here.) It's a police procedural of an entirely new kind. The title has a double meaning. The case is of a small boy who has been abducted from a shopping centre. He's gone. But the detective is a man with gender dysphoria who has to live life as a woman for a year before undergoing surgery. He's gone, too, coming back to work as a She. One could see this as a rather extreme way of finding a detective with a tic we haven't seen before, but the subject is treated sensitively and in depth. Very highly recommended. Hopefully we'll be able to read more about D. I. Robyn Bailey and her adventures.

7. Sara Paretsky - Hardball 
While on the subject of female detectives, I've always enjoyed Sara Paretsky's novels about feisty feminist private detective V. I. Warshawski, who's been righting wrongs on the mean streets of the Windy City for many years. The novels are all the same, although the later ones are better written and raise wider social issues. In this one, set during the Obama presidency, Warshawski uncovers corruption in a political campaign that brings back bad memories of the freedom marches and race riots of the 1960s. But there are all the ingredients - Warshawski against the Man (always white and middle-aged) during which she gets seriously injured in feats of derring-do while neglecting the boring stake-outs and insurance scams whereby she is supposed to make her meager living. But most of all it's about Chicago, the first city in the United States I ever visited and for which I have a lingering affection.

6. C. J. Sansom - Lamentation
Like The Last Kingdom this is a historical novel and part of a series (and, like The Last Kingdom, Mrs Gee bought me the rest for Christmas, so expect a revisit in a year's time, if we're all still here.) The series stars a lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, through whose eyes we witness the comings and goings at the court of Henry VIII, and meet many of its movers and shakers such as Thomas Cromwell, Bishop Stephen Gardiner and Sir Richard Riche. Lamentation is the last in the series: Henry VIII is dying, and his queen, Catherine Parr, has mislaid a devotional work of her own devising that could get her into trouble with the religious authorities. The Queen charges Shardlake with finding it before news gets to the King. Unlike Uhtred of Bebbanburg or V. I. Warshawski, Shardlake solves problems with a legal mind rather than a sword called Serpent-Breath or a 9mm Smith & Wesson, but all have a certain cunning and all get into hair-raising and potentially lethal scrapes. I think I can detect a certain theme emerging in my reading.

5. Annie Proulx - The Shipping News
I'd read this a long time ago and enjoyed it, but had forgotten much of the plot by the time I picked up a secondhand copy. It's about a hopeless hack journalist called Quoyle who, deserted by his no-good wife, moves with his tough-talking aunt and two delinquent daughters from New York to Newfoundland, the stormy, fogbound country of his ancestors. It's a novel about self-discovery and redemption, and during the voyage we meet many comic characters and tragic stories until our boy finally comes out on top, gets the girl and lives happily after. But what is most captivating is the quality of the writing. A different kind of feelwell novel.

4. Neil Gaiman - The Ocean At The End Of The Lane
Like Alex Clare I can boast some slight acquaintance with the author (his kid sister was in my class at school when I was 14) but unlike Clare, Gaiman is hardly an author just starting out, but a colossus in the world of fantasy with films and TV adaptations in his train. He's even written an episode of Dr Who, which as far as I'm concerned has to be the apotheosis of anyone's zenith. And quite right too, for his blend of real life with the fantasy around its edges is never short of compelling. Whether mainly for kids or for grown-ups (Neverwhere to American Gods) Gaiman's work conceals a core of bowel-loosening terror in a wrapping that's fey on the surface, and so taps into the genuine spirit of fantastical fiction. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is set in the Sussex countryside where the author grew up (as did I - did I mention that I was in his sister's class at school?) and, for me, evoked buried memories of playing in fields and woods that could, in the half-light at the end of the day, and the corner of the eye, seem haunted with beings from an older world.

3. Mary Beard - SPQR 
Celebrity classicist Mary Beard presents her history of ancient Rome in an attempt to answer the question of why a small tribe on the coast of nowhere in particular managed to dominate the known world for a thousand years such that Uhtred of Bebbanburg could marvel at Hadrian's Wall and the clerics of Matthew Shardlake's time write regularly in its language. It's a good question, and the key seems to be delegation - the Romans crafted a society in which Roman citizenship was a goal worth attaining by anyone, the result being that the Romans, once they had conquered somewhere, largely encouraged the local population to do things for themselves, as long as they paid their taxes and enforced the Pax Romana. It's a model the British used in India, where the entire continent was ruled by a number of well-educated Britons that these days wouldn't be enough to run a biggish NHS hospital trust. Matters began to unravel in AD 212 when the Emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to just about everyone. And, like the man said, if everybody's somebody, then no-one's anybody. A pile-driving, thought-provoking read and, unusually, the only straight nonfiction of this year's list. 

2. Neal Stephenson - Quicksilver
From historical fiction to fantasy to real history to an audacious novel that plays with all three. Although I can say that the novel is stuffed with real people, from Isaac Newton to Louis XIV,  a young Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Pepys, William of Orange to Robert Hooke, I can't really say what it's about, except it's an extended and playful romp on the theme of the Enlightenment, and that I enjoyed every minute. Note - my edition is actually the first three novels of what is a much longer cycle: the rest are collected as The Confusion and The System Of The World, which I haven't read yet, and they are all meant to stand as a prequel to Cryptonomicon, which I haven't read either. Clearly. many boxes of delight await.

1. Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall
Perhaps given the theme of this year's collection it's fitting I close with a historical novel; one that's just one of two (the other is Bring Up The Bodies); set during the reign of Henry VIII; and which I first encountered as a marvelous TV adaptation. The novel is a fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from low beginnings to be the right hand man of Cardinal Wolsey and, eventually, the chief Man of Hench to Henry VIII himself. The two novels (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies) are really the same story without a break, and conclude with the execution of Anne Boleyn. The style is confusing because although it's from Cromwell's point of view, much of which is an internal monologue, it's written in the third person so one must on occasionally backtrack and work out who said what. Having said all that the novel is gripping and edgy, and one gets a picture of what it must have been like to have to arrange matters to suit the changing whims of an absolute monarch at a time of religious confusion and dissent when a word out of line could mean a grisly death.