books

An essay, a story, a couple of reviews

It looks like I’ve neglected to tell you what I’ve been up to lately. I entered an essay into this year’s NUHA Blogging Prize, on the topic of ‘Do schools and universities have a responsibility to educate their students on social behaviour alongside the academic?’ and you can read it (and comment on it) here. It’s already sparked a bit of discussion, not least in the Monkey household.

I’ve also got a short (just under 500 words) story in issue 8 of Firefly Magazine, which you can read online here.

Before that came out I reviewed a fast-paced sci-fi novel, vN by Madeline Ashby, over at Luna Station Quarterly, and a book on spelling, grammar and punctuation at The Bookbag. Bits of it reminded me of Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, but it never quite lived up to its promise. And I still don’t know the proper names for all the parts of a sentence, I just use them as they fit best. Reading hundreds of books for fun over the last 35 years has no doubt helped with that.

So there you are, that’s you (loyal reader) all caught up. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Fiction as a thought experiment

The final event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was another Comma Press one. For a few years they’ve had a project where a writer gets paired with a scientist: the scientist briefs the writer on a particular topic, the writer writes their story which is somehow linked to it, and the scientist then provides an afterword. The latest anthology of these stories (due out next month) is called Thought X, and is concerned with thought experiments.

Having spent a total of 9 years at 3 universities immersed in maths and theoretical physics, I hadn’t realised that thought experiments were anything other than an everyday matter or that the concept might be unfamiliar to people (I can’t think why people complain about academia being disconnected from the real world…). There are a variety of different sorts of thought experiment, some just an ‘imagine you have a…’ to get people to grasp a concept, others that either stop you from having to do an experiment (because you’ve worked it through logically via your imagined scenario) or that highlight a flaw in a theory by showing that there would be some contradiction if you thought your way through it in this case.

We heard extracts from three of the stories respectively based on the grandfather paradox in time travel, Laplace’s demon, and Schrödinger’s cat. Each thought experiment gave the author an existing narrative (e.g. there had to be an element of time travel and it had to involve some version of killing your own grandfather) around which to base their own narrative. Each of the three stories were different in tone and setting, and it sounds like it should be an interesting book.

To follow the readings, Professor Steven French of the University of Leeds (coincidentally Mark the artist’s academic grandfather i.e. his PhD supervisor’s PhD supervisor) talked about the importance of thought experiments in science, the history of Schrödinger’s famous cat and the many-worlds theories of quantum mechanics, as well as literature as a thought experiment. Which made me think science fiction is almost always explicitly a thought experiment – what happens if we increase global temperatures, what happens if there’s a scarcity of resources, what happens if we develop this technology? A good cue to go write some.

Technological supremacy, the not so direct path

Talking about technological innovation and what wins out, recently, I discovered that friend of a friend Carolyn Dougherty had written a great article on just such a topic. It’s called On Progress, On Airships and you can read it in Steampunk Magazine 5. She talks about how the invention that ‘wins’ (i.e. enters the mainstream) is not necessarily the best or the safest, which although you may have realised that before, still makes you stop and think.

Coincidentally in the same week I stumbled across a novel called The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, which is about the legal battle that saw Edison triumph with his lightbulb. I haven’t read it but it sounds like an interesting angle (though I must admit the phrase SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING EDDIE REDMAYNE is putting me off just a tad).

Ilkley litfest: Tim Smith photographs Gujarat

This evening in an eerily deserted Ilkley I went to see Bradford-based photographer Tim Smith talk about his Gujarat project. I learnt a lot about the history and geography of that part of India, for instance I had no idea it was about the size of the UK (both in area and in population) or that more than half of British people with Indian backgrounds have their origins there. Interestingly there are specific localities connected, so that Gujaratis from Batley are predominantly connected to one part of Gujarat which is a different area from those who live in Bradford, different again from those in Leicester or Wembley.

Tim began his career in Bradford in the mid-eighties working with the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit (oral history and documentary photographs), and it was from the large numbers of migrants he photographed in Bradford’s mills that he eventually worked so much on documenting migration to Britain. As he said this evening, the textile work was the ‘pull factor’ that encouraged people to come to the UK, but he wanted to see the story from the other end. Hence he spent 2 months in Gujarat in 2014.

His style is photographing ‘ordinary people doing everyday things’ whether that’s in Bradford, Leicester, London or Surat. There was a nice symmetry to some of the pictures he showed: Indian restaurants in Bradford and English-style restaurants or food stalls in India; the interior of a church in Mumbai that could have been anywhere in England, and the interior of a mosque near Bradford that could have been India. One of my favourite pictures was a woman in a shalwar kameez playing cricket on a beach, which happened to be in India but could just as easily have been Blackpool.

Unfortunately an hour proved to be too short a time to fit everything in and sadly Tim had to rush through the last half-dozen photos, but it was an interesting evening with some wonderful photos and I’m sorry I missed the exhibition that arose from this trip (though there is of course a book).

Ilkley Litfest: Mike Jay

The first event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was an eye-opening talk on the history of asylums. Straight away, in my first sentence, I’ve struggled with what to call them, and that difficulty in terminology was the first thing Mike Jay addressed.

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His book is called This Way Madness Lies, and he stressed that none of his word choice is intended to be offensive but when you’re covering hundreds of years of history the words people use change as much as the attitudes. Madness, lunacy, insanity, mental illness. The affliction as permanent and inherent, or able to be treated with rest, electric shocks, drugs. The asylum as prison, hospital, home. All these changes in perspective reflect changes in society or the progress of medicine.

It is not a linear, progressive history and Jay suggested there were cyclical elements and also – which I found particularly thought-provoking – that if you took a snapshot at any one time you would find examples of both good and bad conditions. He also talked about delving into several hundred years worth of the Bethlem hospital (‘bedlam’) archives over the last decade, and gave a very brief overview of the ‘open air asylum’ at Geel in Belgium, which I hadn’t heard of but has about as long a pedigree as Bethlem (Geel is a town in which there is a centuries-old tradition of taking people with mental problems as boarders with families).

All in all, a packed 45 minutes where Mike Jay rattled through a number of topics from his (illustrated) book and showed a selection of slides including art by asylum inmates, some or all of which were taken from the book. As the audience questions about the effects of austerity on mental healthcare today, and the possible future for psychiatric treatment, showed this history illuminates the present and I’ve added this hefty volume to my To Read list.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I kept picking up this novel in charity shops, my eye caught by the font on the spine every time (very suggestive of the 1920s, to me), reading the back and thinking Maybe. Then I stopped seeing it and after a while I spotted it again and immediately bought it in case I missed my chance. I’m so glad I did.

There was this jazz band in Berlin between the wars, mixed white, black, Jewish, German, American but what was important was the music. They loved to play music together. They gelled. Hiero Falk their young trumpet-player went missing in Paris in 1940, but not before they’d recorded enough to allow them a small following in years to come. Fifty-two years later Hiero’s two American band-mates have been invited to a Berlin jazz festival, the first time they’ve returned to the city. It brings a lot of memories and secrets bubbling to the surface and tests their seventy-year friendship to the limit.

I normally avoid second world war books. When I was little the black and white films on TV in an afternoon were heroic war adventures (when they weren’t either Cliff Richard or an Ealing comedy), and I had my fill of Biggles, The Silver Sword and The Machine Gunners, and repeated talk of Hitler in school history lessons, so by the time I started reading grown-up books at age 11 or 12, I made a conscious decision not to go there. Much as I love Evelyn Waugh, I have never read the Sword of Honour trilogy. The fact that this novel had its roots in pre-war Berlin and occupied Paris was the main reason for my hesitation in buying it in the first place. Though the narrative moves back and forth a little between 1992 and the late 30s/1940, it is predominantly a novel set in wartime and the build-up to war, but it’s the music that is the focus.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about jazz though I recognised a few real names Edugyan introduced to the mix. However, I do understand the importance of music, I could relate to the drive, the brotherhood of true fans, the way they clung to it through everything that was happening, and the euphoria when the band was playing at its best. All that is conjured brilliantly, as is the nervy claustrophobia as the tension mounts. I found I was just as tense (if not more so) about whether they would get to cut the disc with the Big Name as about the imminent invasion of France. That is testament, I think, to the way this novel is about a few vivid characters rather than a time, a place or a movement.

All in all a powerful novel that leaves you thinking for a while afterwards, mainly about facing up to the past, and living with consequences. It did take me a few pages to get into the rhythm of the first-person narrative (one of the black American jazz musicians, using slang and with a tendency to say ‘a orange’ rather than ‘an orange’, for instance) but once I had, it seemed perfectly natural and easy to read. Definitely one for the music fans, genre not important – if you can take or leave the radio yourself I suspect you’ll struggle to understand some of the motives in the book.

Fathers Day, a note of thanks

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My dad’s leather-patched elbow, with which he has nudged me into all sorts of literary and musical exploration

Sometimes I’m too tired to avoid the cliche up ahead, so here’s a Fathers’ Day post about my dad, without whom… (well, without whom I wouldn’t be here, obviously, but I mean apart from that).

  • When I had measles, aged 9 or 10, he read a good chunk of The Lord of the Rings to me, because he’s not one for taking age into account (thankfully). I struggled with it when he handed it over once I was feeling better, and it took me another few years to go back and finish it, but the spark of interest was there.
  • He likes Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, and he thought I might too (and as we now know, my entire writing career such as it is can be blamed on Douglas Adams)
  • He likes Anthony Trollope, and he thought I might too (can you see a pattern emerging here?)
  • He assiduously collected PKD novels in the years when they were hard to come by, scouring the second hand bookshops of West Yorkshire and Cumbria, and shared them. When I’m finally happy with my SF noir novel, Sunrise Over Centrified City, he’ll get to see where all that ended up.
  • He let me read the Maigret novels he got out of the library, when I was still on a children’s ticket (it’s that not accounting for age thing again. That also got me using big words quite early on – learn fast or have no idea what he’s talking about…)

If you’ve been around here for a while you can see the shape of my reading habits in this list. And if you really have been around for a while you probably know some of the musical ones too (all the bits that aren’t Big Brother’s fault. Both of them deny all responsibility for the hair metal). I am still resistant to Roxy Music, however.

Thanks today to all the dads that read to their kids, take them to libraries, buy them books (whether or not that involves keeping a list tucked in their wallet of which books exist in a series and which ones said child hasn’t read yet) and generally enthuse them about reading. Better than a kickabout in the park any day.