Sunday, 7 April 2013

Setting aside the award, the real question is why?

by Bill Kirton

Some news this week made it tempting for me to be unforgivably boastful in this blog. My novel The Sparrow Conundrum won the Readers' Choice Award in the Humor and Satire category at Big Al's Books and Pals. It would, however, be unseemly and distinctly un-British to mention it so it will pass in discreet silence while, for a change, I offer a quick biology lesson.

The subject is something that sounds as if it was a warrior in some ancient battle – Ixodes ricinus. But we know it better as a sheep tick. (By the way, the ricinus part of the name is a bit sinister. It relates to its other common name, the castor bean tick, and it’s from castor beans that you get that horrible poison, ricin, which, of course, features briefly in my novel The Darkness, another award winner, ho-hum.) Anyway, Ixy, as we’ll fondly call it, is a very common tick indeed. It can live for anything between two and six years.

It starts life as one of a couple of thousand eggs, hatches out as a larva (with its 1,999 brothers and sisters), and is ready to feed within a few days. So it climbs up a nearby plant, grass stem or whatever, and waits. Eventually (after maybe minutes, maybe days), it smells butyric acid, which tells it that a mammal is nearby and, as the animal brushes past the grass, Ixy leaps onto it and starts gorging itself on blood. This lasts for 2 or 3 days, during which it puts on weight and is eventually 10 to 20 times heavier than when it started.

When it’s had enough, it drops off and, after several months, it becomes a nymph. During those months, it doesn’t eat, mate, play football, watch movies or anything. It just gets older. So far, remember, it’s had just one meal. Not surprisingly, then, the following year it feels peckish again, climbs up another stalk and waits for a bigger animal to come along. The first snack was from something like a vole, this time it might choose a squirrel and the meal will last longer – 4 to 5 days – then it’s back to the undergrowth.

Finally, as adults, Ixy and his pals climb even higher and wait for larger animals from hares up to deer. The females then go to town, feasting for about a week and sucking down up to 5 ml of blood. Ixy, being a male, hangs around for longer but only takes small snacks because he’s busy mating with every Ixy female he can persuade into thinking it’s a good idea.

Then the female drops off, lays her eggs and dies. Ixy just drops off and dies. He doesn’t even get to see his kids. Remember, all this can take two years or six. Two or six years of hanging about, climbing up bits of grass, having three meals, mating, then dying. Now, apart from the mating bit, which I’m guessing doesn’t involve much foreplay, that doesn’t sound like a very interesting way to spend a life, so the question that always strikes me when I read of the wonders of nature and the processes of evolution is – Why?

And, of course, simply by asking that question, I’m back with my old mate Sisyphus and his rock. What on earth is the point of it all? Maybe evolution is making the hill smaller with each ‘advance’, but why? What’s it for? I don’t suppose Ixy is much of a thinker but if he is I bet he’s cursing God for making him a sheep tick when he could have been something with more apparent purpose like an Aardvark or a merchant banker. Imagine his thought processes as he dangles there on his bit of grass, feeling hungry and just waiting. He doesn’t even have the comfort expressed by Estragon in Waiting for GodotWe always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?’

Good fun, though, isn’t it?

16 comments:

CallyPhillips said...

Ah yes Mr Existentialist - the POINT. I think the sheep tick is less absurd in purpose than awards. The sheep tick, after all can pass Lyme's Disease on to humans which while it may not kill them, can dramatically alter their entire future lives! (which I guess makes it more or less as powerful/purposeful as a merchant banker!)
Awards on the other hand, yes, I (think) I'm agreeing with you - assuming your point was that awards are absurd. What are they good for? Well, they can boost the ego or sales. That's about it. I think all awards are fundamentally pointless. Either they are MAINSTREAM in which case the 'elite' factor or the 'sales' factor is primary or they are INDIE in which case (in my experience) they show either how many friends you have or how slick your marketing operation is. Without wishing to denigrate any of your work (which I wouldn't!) I personally don't think that awards won or lost give any indication of how 'good' a piece of writing is, and their function (rather akin to the sheep tick) may simply be to keep writers busy doing something completely pointless - chasing external validation and/or fame/money. The Daoist position would be not to engage with the whole process because it is fundamentally a waste of time. And that's the one I take. Gives me a lot more time for more fruitful activity- feasting, mating and yes, writing!

Bill Kirton said...

Guilty as charged, Cally. Since most award givers actively encourage nominees to canvas for votes (which I dutifully did), the award is an indication of how many 'friends' you have and/or how many of them are willing to vote. Nonetheless, it is, in theory at least, an aid to marketing. It helped get the book onto the Awesome Indies list and I do like the idea of getting more readers.

And if the purpose of a sheep tick is to pass on Lyme Disease, God or Who/Whatever his/her/its equivalent is, is even more cynical than I've always given him/her/it credit for.

Lydia Bennet said...

Happy to repeat my congratulations to you Bill, I know as a poet that many awards are limited to certain elite circles etc so indie awards are a new and good thing voted for by actual readers. I see no harm in you taking innocent, non-British pleasure in this - as human beings let alone as writers, most of us need validation and recognition, from friends and strangers, to keep us going especially in this sometimes rather solitary working life. So Yay! and thrice yay as Lydia would say, props to you!! There are many life forms which seem pointless, my personal bete noire is the mozzie which seems to fulfill no purpose but to increase suffering, especially mine - I don't even begrudge them a bit of blood, but I do object to the massive agonising weals lasting for weeks that the little bastards leave me with. The point I suppose is that there is no point, things evolved by chance and keep going, we don't need a reason to live or to write or to enjoy anything good that comes along like a squirrel, sheep or whatevs to feed us briefly before another period of obscurity!

Chris Longmuir said...

Bill Kirton, you are far too cerebral!

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks Lydia. I'm with you on mozzies, by the way. And you're right to focus not on the absurdity of the question why but on enjoying the fact that we're here at all and in a position to enjoy what comes along.

Bill Kirton said...

Sorry, Chris. But you know it's all a front anyway.

Dan Holloway said...

Huge congratulations, Bill. And Chris, there's no such thing as too cerebral! As people with access to even one or two readers, it is almost a humanitarian duty for writers to exercise every synapse they have to get people to appreciate every precious moment of life and cast off every shackle that prevents it :)

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, Dan. In the present educational climate, the old stress on critical thinking seems to have no place but when I use the term 'thought-provoking' in reviews, it's always intended as a positive. Yes we're in the entertainment business, but if we can simultaneously 'provoke' reflection on (and appreciation of) the lives we're all living, that's enriching.

julia jones said...

I took the point of the parable to be that we writers are like sheep-ticks, crawling up the grass stem to deliver our one book a year then falling back into dulled exhaustion as we incubate the next one. What IS the point? Scribo ergo sum or Sum ergo scribo. Not a lot in it really

madwippitt said...

As every fule no, ticks are essential for the continuation of civilisation as we know it: no market researcher or exam candidate looking at their multiple-choice exam paper could survive without them. As the instructions always say: please place tick in the box provided.

julia jones said...

Oh very good madwippitt, no fleas on you

Bill Kirton said...

I bow before your exegetical skills in teasing out the true allegorical meaning of this posting, Julia (even though I was unaware of it myself).

And, Ms Whippett, the effortlessly applied Cartesianism of your fusion of spiritual and physical is an object lesson in lateral thinking.

Cerebral? Moi?

Lee said...

Let me see. Awards and sheep ticks. Awards and sheep. I knew there had to be a reason why you chose the sheep tick to illustrate your point about awards.

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks, Bill. On the fourth day of my extended water fast I needed something to turn my stomach and shrink still more by heaving.

Bill Kirton said...

Sorry to disappoint you, Lee, but my thinking's not as subtle as yours. Originally, this was just about the tick. The award came along a couple of days before it was scheduled to appear and so I added it as a wee boast.

Reb, I know we always want our readers to be affected by what we write but gastric upheaval doesn't come high on the list. On the other hand, I'll take whatever I can get.

Lee said...

Indeed, you have disappointed me, Bill. Never mind. I'm off tomorrow to the States, where I always buy my annual supply of tick repellant for Gypsy, my dog. No awards for defeating those ticks, though. Perhaps I ought to keep sheep.