Friday, 14 October 2016

Italy In Pictures

Last week I enjoyed a wonderful diversion. I had been invited to Italy, to speak at the Science Festival (the 14th) in the picturesque city of Bergamo, outside Milan.

  My host was Professor Telmo Pievani of the University of Padua ...

who as well as being a formidable scholar in his own right is also a translator - it was he who had translated my book The Accidental Species into Italian.

The lecture took place in the Teatro Donizetti - a grand old opera house named after Bergamo's favorite son. There I spoke to more than 600 people who'd actually paid for the privilege (there was a simultaneous translation into Italian.)

..... and afterwards I was interviewed for a piece in the Italian daily La Stampa.

After Bergamo came Padua, a city of breathtaking beauty ....

.... and, with one of the oldest universities in the world (est. 1222), a cradle of the Renaissance, attracting such luminaries as Galileo Galilei and William Harvey, and which, in 1678, graduated the first woman to obtain a doctoral degree in anything, anywhere in the world. I gave a lecture in the biology department, and with Professor Pievani and his wonderful students was shown the city, including the botanical garden, which among many other treasures features a palm tree studied by Goethe...

.... and the world's first anatomical dissection theatre, where Vesalius did his stuff.

A particular pleasure was visiting the Scrovegni chapel, decorated by Giotto between 1303 and 1305, that is, at least 711 years ago.  I'd last seen this as a schoolboy, in 1980, when the egg-tempera frescoes were a mere 675 years old. A particular highlight is this gruesome vision of Hell, which must have terrified the congregation.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

To Dr & Mrs Gee's Dog

It's Heidi the dog's 9th birthday. To celebrate I have written her a poem (with profuse apologies to John Keats)

Dog! who hast passed thy grand climacteric
How many chairs and sofas hast in thy days
Destroyed? How many smelly socks stolen? Gaze
With those big round doggy eyes so brown, and lick
Thy tender parts, but prithee do not prick
Thy fierce teeth in my leg, and up-raise
Thy lusty bark, and tell me all thy frays
Of balls, soft-furnishings and crunchy stick.

Nay, not look down, and lick thy swollen wrists
For all thy dodgy hips, and for all
Thy knees are knackered, and though the paws
Of many a mog have given thee many a maul
Still is that fur as soft as when the surging sea
In youth thou first braved to chase that tennis ball.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Biology in Thirty Seconds

Those of a certain age will remember Monty Python's 'Summarise Proust in Fifteen Seconds contest. One feels that had they had thirty seconds the contestants might have succeeded. No such madeleines worries for 30-Second Biology, a handsome volume now available from all good emporia. Here is the copy the publishers kindly sent me yesterday.
A copy of 30-Second Biology, recently. The Python (Monty) is extra.

It's a compilation of fifty topics in biology, from Archaea to Genetics, Excretion to Phylogeny, always there when you want a brief exposition of some toothsome topic in biology. I can imagine it'll be handy for the GCSE or A-level student in your life. And the pictures are tremendous. Here is an inside spread.

I have to declare an interest here - I wrote twenty-two of the fifty topics, an exacting task that taught me the joys of brevity. Among the other contributors was my friend Mr B. C. of Swindon, who can only have been brought in to raise the tone, as he's a physicist. No matter. I commend this book to the house.

Friday, 2 September 2016

He's Gone by Alex Clare

One of the pleasures of having a blog is being able to celebrate the achievements of one's friends. I have known Alex Clare for more years than I am prepared to admit, though we haven't been in touch very often. Like millions of others she commutes in and out of London to a desk job. Many of those millions dream that one day they'll write a terrific book that might enthrall readers and change their lives.

In this case, Alex has actually done it.

He's Gone is a first-rate police procedural. There are the false trails, the dramatic reveals and careful plotting you'd expect in a good detective story. There all the telling details showing that police life is a remorseless, fruitless and often bureaucratic grind relieved by endless cups of instant coffee, bad food and rare flashes of progress.

But wait, there's more.

He's Gone gives you not one mystery, but -- count 'em -- two. It's a well-paced ensemble piece with a cast of memorable characters. The twist, and the source of the title (in part - but I won't give too much away), is that the central character, D. I. Roger Bailley, has just returned to his post after two weeks away -- as Robyn.

Fictional detectives always have some quirk. They are drunks, womanizers, loners or neurotic. Some of them even like listening to Wagner. Most seem to have fairly dysfunctional family lives. This is the first gumshoe I've encountered who, divorced after seventeen years of a loveless and difficult marriage, realizes he has gender dysphoria and has decided to change sex. Robyn is in the earliest stages, having been advised that she has to live as a woman for a year before contemplating hormonal treatment or surgery, and Clare manages to convey the absurdities, embarrassments, discomfort, inconvenience -- and prejudices -- with a light touch.

And all this in a début novel. We haven't heard the last of D. I. Robyn Bailley. Or of Alex Clare.

How the devil are you?
Positively chipper, thank you and very flattered to be invited onto your blog.

What's your story?
I’ve always loved writing but It took me around seven years to finish my first novel because I was either studying or working my way up the corporate ladder. The first break was getting made redundant – I had six months off and joined a writing group, meaning people read and commented on my work for the first time. I would say the second boost was applying for and getting a writing mentor through the Womentoring Project (now sadly defunct). Her first comment was the story wasn’t good enough yet. Hard to hear but it made me look at it again with the ruthlessness needed.

This is your first published novel. Yet it's so accomplished, so poised, that I feel you must have reams of unpublished work in a drawer somewhere at home. Do you?

Thank you. I think that reflects the number of drafts the book went through and how lucky I was to have some very critical beta readers. I do have a full, unpublished novel: when you first set off, you think a three-narrator story that runs backwards and forwards in time across fifty years is perfectly manageable. I think that’s why He’s Gone ended up covering only eight days.

I envy your ability to create a plot. Do you map everything out in precise detail beforehand, perhaps with a software assistant such as Scrivener, or do you sit in front of a blank screen and just write, polishing it up later?
I can’t imagine writing anything longer than a short story without a plan. I’ve heard about all of these sophisticated tools but I find my two-step system of scribbling things on bits of paper, then working it up into a spreadsheet works for me.

Can you describe your writing space?
My writing space is a rich environment of Spreaders, Sniffers, Snorers and other inhabitants of London commuter trains. It is the perfect environment to write: you are not expected to talk to anyone and, if you run short of inspiration, there are your fellow travelers. When everyone is on a journey, there are always incipient stories.

What book or books are on your bedside table?

I have a terrible habit of having multiple books on the go at once as I like to read a mix of genres. I have a mix of crime (for research); Booker shortlists (always for some reason better than the winners); and things where I liked the picture on the cover.

He's Gone is set somewhere in North Kent, presumably in the Medway towns, though the names have been changed. Why there?

Geographically, the book is set on the Isle of Grain, which means I haven’t had to displace anyone. I wanted to create my own town for two reasons: firstly, because I am writing about what can be a contentious subject, I wanted to reinforce the whole ‘no resemblance to anyone living or dead’ point. Secondly, if it’s my town, it’s my rules. I never cease to be amazed by the pedantry of some people, such as ‘the author should have recognized that the street the police station stands on was made one-way in 1982 and therefore the character could not have traveled in the direction described.’ I do not want to be at home to such people (though of course, it does mean I have to keep on top of things, so I do have some hand-drawn maps.)

Do you keep regular hours or wait until the muse strikes?
Very regular. On train, sit down, open netbook. Except editing – editing is a pain on a train and I do have to force myself to do it.

What is your favorite book?
How to pick just one book? If it is the first book I remember, it was probably A Dozen Dinosaurs. The first book I truly lost myself in then probably the Chronicles of Narnia where I stayed inside all through a family holiday, reading. If you want a book I come back to again and again, If you want a book that never fails to make me laugh, it would be my Compleet Molesworth. If I just had one and one only, I think it would have to be my complete works of Saki, whose writes so evocatively of an era and never uses a word where it is not needed.

What is it about Jammie Dodgers that makes them so different, so appealing?
The eating of Jammie Dodgers is a solemn ritual, to be observed meticulously. First, the two layers should be split into top and bottom, taking care that the cream filling adheres to the bottom half. This is then nibbled off, before the lower biscuit is consumed (dunking of the plain half is permissible, if desired). The, the top half can be munched in a series of small, circular bites until you are left with the jammy bit in the centre, which should be enjoyed separately. Then repeat.

The first rule of writing is Write What You Know - a dictum you have cheerfully ignored. I know for a fact that you are neither a transsexual, nor have you been in the police force. It's clear that you've done your research, but like all good authors you wear it very lightly so it doesn't get in the way of the story. Tell me about your research.
While the foreground may be different, the background has drawn on a lot of familiar things. The book’s set in a medium-sized town (like the one I live in): I wouldn’t know where to start on a gritty, inner-city drama. If anyone literary ever studies the book (ha!), they may comment on the main character’s hobby of photography and how this sets up a dichotomy between judging an image purely on its appearance and a character who wants to be judged on anything but. My answer to this would be that my hobby is photography, so I put that it because I know what I’m talking about. In terms of specific research, I talked to people. All of the things that happen to Robyn are things that have happened to real people.

What's the best piece of advice you have ever received - and the worst?

In writing terms, the best advice must be to write first before editing. I get everything down, then leave it and come back to it. Otherwise, you end up trying to craft a sentence to perfection, while the story never gets finished. And the worst? I think if I read all of the writing advice on the web, I’d never have time to write anything.

Transgender issues are very current. Did you write this book in a mad rush, or did it start - like most books - in a different form, a long time ago? If so, what gave you the idea of a transgender detective?
I started writing this book on March 8th 2013 (yes, I have a spreadsheet). The idea came from watching the Equal Marriage debate in parliament. I was shocked by the way a person could be labelled and written-off by one aspect of their life. I wanted to create a situation where someone with these intolerant views had to deal with someone (especially when that someone was in a position of authority) that they didn’t believe had the right to exist.

I also happen to know you used to play rugby to a high level. In those days women's rugby was very much a niche sport, now it's at the Olympics. Tell us about your rugby. Do you still have an interest in it?
Watching, yes. Playing no. Work was getting in the way of training, so I gave it up a number of years ago when we moved. I missed coming to a new town and immediately having thirty new friends.

I also happen to know that you met your husband (the 'A' of the dedication) on a serious hiking expedition. Where have you been recently? Where are you going next?
While we still do some silly trips (Finland at -35C was a highlight), our next trip is to Paris. We go to Paris a lot - we were over there during the attacks in November 2015, so we are going back partly out of solidarity.

He's Gone touches on quite serious issues of race, gender and class, but manages to navigate the PC minefield with aplomb. Do you think it's a post-PC novel?
I didn’t set out to write a post-PC novel. My approach is people not labels, so I’ve tried to write a story about people. How they react in any situation is driven by their personal experiences. It is something I enjoy exploring: I’m fascinated by belief and how something that is intangible can lead to very tangible consequences.

What's the most interesting thing in your fridge?

There is always a bottle of champagne in there in case something very good, or very bad happens. (I agree with Winston Churchill on its efficacy in both situations).

What's next? More D. I. Bailley - or something else?

I am just over halfway through the second DI Bailley novel, with a couple more roughly plotted-out in my head (for the benefit of the many TV producers reading this). In terms of achievements, the next big one would be to get a play produced. A couple of my works have been done as staged readings and the sense of causing a real person (as opposed to a paper person) to move and say things that you tell them to is quite intoxicating

Have you anything to declare?
On re-reading the above, it would have to be that I have control-freakery issues...

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Accidental Species - in Chinese

Here is some news I have been sitting on for a little while, but can now announce: The Accidental Species is being translated into Chinese. No publication date, so far as I know, but I shall post updates as and when I get them. Intriguingly, reviews of the English-language edition have begun to appear in Chinese.

The Italian edition is already out, and plans are afoot for me to visit Italy this autumn to promote it, which should be lots of fun.

Foreign language editions are great. Apart from the fact that they introduce your work to an entirely new readership, they also earn money for almost zero effort. After all, the writing is already done, and the work falls to that rare and select individual, the professional translator. Although translation royalties are not enormous, they can, if one is lucky, be a nice source of almost-effort-free income.

I started to calculate how much J. K. Rowling must have accrued by this route alone, given that her seven Harry Potter books have been bestsellers practically everywhere, and translated into sixty-something languages ...but I gave up.

I know for a fact that her work exists in Chinese, if only from the reaction of a diminutive Chinese graduate student who met me once, and, aware of my Olympian frame, said one word - 'Hagrid!'

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Aliens On The Beach

Unable as I was to clear the early-morning fog from my brain, I took advantage of an early low tide and took the dogs to the beach at Trimingham, a few miles down the road from my home.

This is not a ctenophore. It is something else.
It's not uncommon to find a sea gooseberry or two washed up on the strandline. Sea gooseberries, formally known as Pleurobranchia, belong to a group of sea creatures called comb jellies or ctenophores, by virtue of the rows of cilia or 'combs' they use to swim through the water. When captured on film, they have an unearthly beauty. Washed up, they look like small blobs of jelly, their comb-rows faintly discernible.

This morning, though, there were dozens scattered like pearls along the shore, ranging in size from a pea to (indeed) a gooseberry. I have never seen a mass-stranding like this before. Sadly I didn't have my camera on me to take pictures - I returned to take the snaps you see here. I did manage to rescue a few. When cupped in a small amount of seawater you could just see their comb-rows flick to and fro.

A Fistful of Jellies

Pearls scattered along the shore

Ctenophores used to be grouped with cnidarians - stingers such as jellyfish and sea-anemones - such as this jellyfish I snapped in an aquarium in Las Vegas some years back.

But over the past few years zoologists have come to realize that ctenophores are different -- very different. Different enough to deserve their own separate major group, or phylum. When the first genome of a ctenophore was published (see also here) the difference widened into a chasm: ctenophores, it seems, do things differently not only from cnidarians, but from all other animals. Their nervous systems, for example, are constructed rather differently from those in any other animal, and it has been suggested that ctenophores represent a strain of evolution entirely distinct from that of any other animal. They are perhaps the closest things we have on Earth to aliens - in which case it was prescient of James Cameron to have made the undersea aliens in his magic-lantern production The Abyss (pictured here) look very much like ctenophores.

More recent work has cast doubt on some of these assertions, and broadened the argument to include other early-branching animals such as sponges. Once assumed to be primitively nerveless, it is possible that sponges once had nervous systems but lost them, making the position of ctenophores as merely aberrant rather than entirely distinct. Some researchers have lamented that these broad-brush ideas about evolution might be refined were zoologists to spend more time studying the basic biology, development and evolution of creatures usually left languishing in the more unread parts of zoology textbooks. If I were a young zoologist just starting out and wondering how to make my mark, I might well consider working on these beautiful, fascinating and enigmatic creatures - for much of what I find is likely to be entirely new, possibly unexpected, and might even yield clues to the deeper secrets of animal evolution.

Oh, by the way, books I have read since my last literary update include At Home and The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson; The Garden by Chaz Brenchley and Dr Mütter's Marvels by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. I'm currently reading SPQR by Mary Beard.

Monday, 27 June 2016

A Piece of Work

Some time ago the Ivy Press asked me to write copy for an intriguing book called 30-Second Biology, which I see is now available for pre-order. I wrote quite a large fraction of it (almost half).

The task was rather like Monty Python's notorious 'Summarise Proust in 15 Seconds' competition - one had to distil the absolute essentials of vast subjects (such as evolution, sexual selection, neurons, plants, bacteria) into a readable nugget no more than about 160 words long.

It was a tough assignment but intensely enjoyable, I had to revisit skills I'd acquired long ago writing press releases about complicated science that were succinct, accurate, and in language that non-specialist journalists could understand.

It also brought back to me the jewel-like shine of a perfect paragraph honed down to the irreducible minimum, where choice of words is vital, and one has to make hard decisions about which concepts must be developed, and those that can be safely left out.

When giving seminars to would-be science writers, my advice has always been to go read the works of people who could really write; and my choice has always veered towards the early nineteenth century when people still spoke the kind of English that Shakespeare might have understood, but sufficiently modern for us to enjoy without a dictionary - and which had yet to run into the slough of prolixity that characterises much later nineteenth-century prose.

My picks are always honed down to the novels of Jane Austen, and the poems of John Keats. These were writers who could express entire universes of thought in one well-crafted sentence. It might seem odd, perverse even, for a science writer to seek inspiration from Emma, or Ode to a Nightingale - but I nevertheless cite these as masterpieces not just of elegance, beauty, craft and line, but of brevity.