Thursday, 30 April 2020

Of Writing Productivity During a Pandemic

All through the Covid pandemic, I've been under continuous low-level stress, that spikes and ebbs depending on news I receive on personal and professional fronts.

April has been a surreal month for me, as I'm sure it has been for all of us (I've been self-isolating since March due to low immunity ). The most mundane things like going for a walk, grocery shopping, watching a play, seem like things I must have done in another life that I have but a vague memory of.

I've worked from home for more than a decade, so the 'circuit-breaker' here in Singapore has not changed my life in a drastic fashion. It has taken away options, though. I can't pick up my laptop and write at a cafe if my muse proves elusive, or call a friend for coffee to listen to each other nattering about our lives, or work off some steam at the gym.

Add to that the relentless barrage of ugly news, and it makes me want to curl up and hide.

Having looked at all this in a calm fashion (something I'm capable of doing once in a while), I realised that the lack of control is what is getting me antsy, and one way to (pretend to?) reclaim it is to get back to writing the best I can. And those are the operative words. Best. I. Can.

Not the best I've ever done, or the best I see myself doing, or the best that others have achieved.

So, in case it helps any other writer who has had a bit of a struggle these past few weeks, here's what I've been telling myself:

1.  Writing during a pandemic: Accept that this is here to stay.

At the outset, when country after country went on lockdown, it seemed surreal. Stress builds up in unusual situations, and stress could be mood killer when it comes to writing. We now know that the virus will be part of our lives for a while and that uncertainty is the new normal for a long while yet. Once this is accepted, we can begin to plan our routine, and figure out how to make it work.

2. Writing during a pandemic: Set different productivity benchmarks.

Many of us will be staying with our families in closer proximity, have more care-giving responsibilities, and more chores. We need to figure our writing around that, and that means being all right with sporadic productivity. We might write less than before, but that is acceptable, because we're also trying to survive a pandemic. Productivity looks different during a struggle for survival. It is simple: when your body thinks it is under threat, it will not relax easily enough to want to create art. Or anything, for that matter.

3. Writing during a pandemic: Small sprints for the Win

With all that's happening around us, it might be difficult to sustain focus for extended periods. If you tell yourself you can write in shorter bursts though, it tends to work better. It is easier to imagine that for those 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 minutes, you will focus on whatever it is that you need to write. it will add up. Take longer breaks in between, reward yourself, but set a timer and write. The pomodoro technique is your friend.

4. Writing during a pandemic: Perfect is the enemy of good

Unless you need to obsessively edit whatever you write (continue with that if it works for you), you can try and finish the draft of an essay or a story or a chapter before trying to revisit it. Get it down on paper, and then better it during rewrites and edits.  Writing can be a stressor or an escape, you choose which is which for you.

5. Writing during a pandemic: Step away from it all

You don't have to be writing all the time. You don't have to be on social media all the time. You don't have to watch the news all the time. Take periodic breaks. Time might have lost its punctuation marks, but you can choose periods of absolute quiet for your mind--with nature, pets, books, art, music--whatever works for you. Come back recharged, and then tackle writing again.

6. Writing during a pandemic: Find a way to help others

At first glance, all of us seem to be in the same boat due to the pandemic, but a deeper look reveals that all of us are suffering in our own boats at this time. We have different mental, physical, social and financial challenges, and are trying to cope the best we can. Reaching out to someone in need not only helps that person, which is crucial to sustain a community, but also aids our individual mental well-being. Being able to help others reassures our body and mind that we are not unsafe or powerless. Once that feeling of safety is established, creativity returns.

What have been your writing hacks during the pandemic? What are you working on? Are you pleased with your productivity? Or like me, frustrated by the lack of it ? Have at it in the comments!

Tweet me up at @damyantig, or reach me at

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Poetic license - N M Browne

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I have done very little work in these extraordinarySpring days. Instead, I have walked through Richmond Park, along the Thames path and through Sheen Common as if I have never seen them before. I know I am privileged to live near such lovely places.
  I don’t know if it is the lack of planes and traffic, the imminent and pervasive sense of doom, or just the fact that it is an exceptionally beautiful Spring, but really the landscape has never looked so lush. The blossom is almost excessive, the sky an implausible shade of blue. I wonder if I have slipped into some alternate Disney fantasy and Covid 19 is about to be destroyed by a square jawed, unfeasibly muscular hero on a white charger. Neither the Spring nor the threat seem entirely real.
    As I seem to be living through some poorly plotted and not entirely plausible fiction ( I mean the American president suggesting people inject themselves with cleaning fluid!) I seem unable to write any. My imagination runs to dystopian post-apocalyptic narratives and it has just been upstaged, then furloughed by events.( Not that I'm being paid 80% of anything.)

I have though, written a lot of poetry, more or less a poem a day since I recovered from my own bout of the lurgy - thirty three in all.They are all about living through these strange days – plague poetry if you like. I’ve  taken to experimenting with obscure forms too: triadic couplets, triolets, villanelles, caesurelles and luc bats.  I’ve send some to the Blue Nib literary magazine and they will be published at some point, but I am putting them on Facebook daily as a rather bizarre way of chronicling this time and sharing my response to it with friends.
   Everyone has their own way of dealing with a crisis  - baking, yoga, box sets, gaming, gardening, crafting, drinking:  mine appears to be long walks and writing poetry.

Plague poem 34 a morning sonnet.
I greet bad weather as a grumpy friend
whose mood chimes better with my own
than clear, cartoon-blue skies that tend to lend
these days the air of dreams. Have I alone
joined in some remade Truman show or slipped
into a fantasy? blossoms tumble
birds trill, set designed by Disney. I’m gripped
seduced, my eyes held rapt until I stumble
on the news again and start to wonder
how two such worlds could both be true at once
give me pathetic fallacies, thunder,
rain, the colder winds of some bitter month.
Yesterday, grassy hills were graveyard green
river, stone, mist, shroud, the way it should have been.

If you want to take a look at the poems - I am Nicky Matthews Browne on Facebook. 

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Plagues and silence, by Enid Richemont

Greetings from one plague-ridden country to the rest of the plague-ridden world (and did I, in any of my dystopian fantasies, imagine I would be, in the Spring of 2020, writing a sentence like that for real? Did any of us?)

It seems that there may be a vaccine by September or October, but I'm sure you don't want anything to do with nasty Big Pharma, so here are some alternative suggestions. They are very old, so obviously must be valid. The gentlest one is drinking vinegar - cheap and simple, although it might attack your tooth enamel, and give you serious indigestion, but you have to be prepared to suffer in order to be cured. Rotting teeth were trendy once - maybe that might return?

After that, though, my prescription might get a little more expensive. You could try arsenic or mercury. These might be difficult to find at your local pharmacy, but I have access to the Dark Web, and I know of a nice Russian gentleman, ex-KGB, who might provide, but at a price.  Chopped snake or chopped pigeon might not be routinely stocked at your local supermarket, but again, following a large payment (cash only, please) these can be acquired. Urine also can be effective, and I have read that cow's urine is currently being recommended in some rural parts of India, but it's a long way to go when I have a mate who's not only a scrap metal dealer, but also a farmer - loves his cows, does dear old Fred, and of course, his product is British, so no nasty foreign muck there.

But there has to be a reason for this Plague in the first place, doesn't there? We have to blame somebody or something, don't we? Of course we do. Well it started in China, so let's blame the Chinese, but which ones? It's a very large country, but never mind - just hit anyone who looks vaguely Chinese, and you might even get the right one.

Wait a minute, though, perhaps there really is a god who's deeply offended by human behaviour? Maybe it's actually our own fault? After all, according to some very ancient books, this particular god has done plagues before, so he/she is an old hand at this - done floods and famines, too when people get a bit above themselves. Perhaps you, personally, should say sorry (naughty thoughts? fancying the wrong gender? nicking a choccie bar from the supermarket?)  and punish yourself (whipping's usually recommended) for anything you might have done or even thought that could have been offensive, and encourage your friends and neighbours to do likewise (but wait a minute - Harry down the road actually enjoys flagellation, says it turns him on...)

But away from this nonsense, the Plague actually brings some blessings. I can hear birdsong in my London garden for the first time ever, not the occasional twitter emerging from the everyday tapestry of lawn mowers, planes, cars, neighbours' barbecues etc etc but complete primadonna sequences - impressive! The almost total silence is something you might actually seek out by going on a retreat. You might do something creative - finish that novel, write a poem or two.  The arts are essential during this situation - books, music, theatre, film - and we are all so lucky to be able to access these online.

Silence is welcomed by introverts, as is distancing, but too much introversion without a single trivial conversation might bring up the ghouls. Pity, then, those who routinely suffer from these without the stimulus of any virus, and pity those in abusive and unhappy relationships, locked down with no escape from the people they most fear or even hate. Once a day outdoor exercise is permitted, but what if there's nowhere to go except empty and dreary streets? I am lucky enough to have a small garden. One day in the future people will read about this in history books and wonder if it really happened, was it faked or at least exaggerated? I grew up knowing next to nothing about the Spanish flu that killed more people than were killed during the first World War.

We all, in time, become history, and at present I'm finding a strange kind of comfort from Hilary Mantel's final book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, enjoying her superb nature writing as well as shuddering at the horrors of an age when a woman could be rejected and even accused of witchcraft for miscarrying an infant or three, or giving birth to a live baby of the wrong gender. Sixteenth Century trolls were possibly even more vicious than contemporary ones, and their death threats infinitely more effective.

With that, I'll leave you with an image of Spring blossom on my little plum tree, and maybe hope for a happier future for us all.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Is the Pandemic Affecting Your Manuscript? - Andrew Crofts

How quickly contemporary writing can seem historical.

When I first started writing in London in 1970, not only the fashions and hairstyles were different. We had a coin-operated public phone in my shared flat and anyone lucky enough to own a car could simply pull up outside and leave it there. Now when a piece of film from that period appears on television it looks like an historical document, books from the leading authors of the day can feel equally old fashioned.

The proliferation of mobile phones has changed the way that the plots of thrillers and detective series work and the progress of the MeToo movement has changed the way that we talk to one another. The unlikely rise of showmen like Trump and Johnson to positions of genuine power has changed our view of what is possible politically, moving the parameters for where a reader has to suspend disbelief.

So will the Covid pandemic, and our reaction to it, change for ever the way we view things like social distancing? It already looks slightly wrong to see people shaking hands or standing too close to one another on television programmes that were recorded before 2020, so how quickly will we adapt back to our old ways of interacting – if at all?

It makes for some difficult decisions if you are in the final stages of completing a manuscript with a contemporary setting. If you don’t mention the pandemic and society’s reactions to it, you risk making your story appear out of date before it has even been published, but if you do make reference to any of these happenings there is a risk that everything will have changed once again by the time you find your readership.

I recently worked on a novel which was set in New Zealand because the plot required a peaceful and safe location. During the early stage of the writing there was a terrible mass shooting in a Mosque in Christchurch, which then had to be mentioned and consequently had an effect on the plotline. I can only imagine how many authors are currently doing hurried re-writes of their manuscripts to include some reference to the great pandemic of 2020.  

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Reading in Progress During Lockdown -- Rituparna Roy

I’m writing this post to motivate myself to finish the reading list I have for the quarantine. In the very limited time that I have at my disposal (yes: my problem - as I’ve already written in my personal blog earlier this month - is not a surfeit of time, but a lack of it), I have had to choose between reading and writing; and in the last couple of weeks, I’ve prioritized writing. That, too, hasn’t happened much, but even that wouldn’t have happened if I’d read more. But I so want to read more…!
I’m not “catching up” with books – with the latest titles, etc. I’m just reading what I’ve wanted to for a while now, but haven’t had a chance.

First in that list was Michelle Obama’s Becoming (2018) – 

This is the only one I’ve finished reading so far. It has one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read: "I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving". Indeed, the book is one long, sustained narrative of Michelle's striving: as an African-American girl from a working class background in Chicago who works her way to Princeton and a successful legal career ('Becoming Me'); as a working mother to two children and wife of a hot shot state senator ('Becoming Us'); and finally as the first Black First Lady of the US ('Becoming More').
Lucid, honest and poignant, this book is unputdownable! 

I had bought the book earlier this year as a farewell gift for a dear colleague. Soon after, I gifted it to myself on my Birthday. While buying, the bookshop attendant suggested I buy the accompanying journal with it. I didn’t know about it, and hence at first, didn’t understand what he was saying. When he brought it to me, though, I fell in love with it instantly. “A guided journal for discovering your voice”, it said, with the cover twinning the book cover in the same beautiful blue. Who could resist that?!
Inside, is an introduction by Michelle Obama, quotes from the book, and “prompts to help you discover—and rediscover—your story.”
I haven’t written a single word in that journal yet. I find it just too beautiful to use…J

Reading now: Lisa Ray’s Close To The Bone (2019)

Like all Indians, I knew her principally as a supermodel who had (to use a beloved media expression) “created waves” in the early 90s after winning the Gladrags Supermodel Contest as a teenager. She was sultriness personified in all the products she endorsed (‘Vimal’, ‘Evita’ are the ones that immediately come to mind), eventually graduating (like all successful models) to acting; her most memorable performance being in Deepa Mehta’s Water (the third part of the director’s ‘Elements trilogy’, after Fire and 1947: Earth).
Memoirs of celebrities flood the market all the time. Though I’m interested in the genre, I’ve always avoided celebrity memoirs because - a) most of them don’t interest me; but more importantly, b) they are often ghost-written. I am interested not in reading about a life, but in the recounting of it. If the telling itself is in someone else’s voice, then it’s not a memoir at all.
Lisa Ray’s case was different. I’d read a couple of her poems in The Punch Magazine in Jan 2018 and liked them. A year later, while browsing through new titles in a bookshop, I came upon Close to the Bone. I read the ‘Prologue’ and ‘Acknowledgement’ sitting on a bean bag in the shop… and got hooked.
I have just read the first chapter, which begins with the unusual romance of her parents (Bengali father, Polish mother) in the 1980s and ends with her on the threshold of a modelling career. Her parents’ is a very endearing story, lovingly told, with a healthy dose of humour. And her own 17 years have enough in them to hold the attention of the reader. In this chapter, she has tried to make sense of her mixed inheritance, and trace the origins of the essential nomad in her. It is the beauty of the prose that has struck me, above all... and that is principally what makes me want to finish the book.  

Up next: Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (2017)

This book won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2018 – but that’s not why I’m reading it. It’s been there on my wish list ever since it was published… and I was happy that it received a prize.

Caste defines Hindus in a way nothing else does. Many upper-caste Hindus live in denial of this fact for most of their lives. Not exactly in denial of the fact that the caste system exists: they will readily agree that lower castes live inhuman, abominable lives; what they will deny is that the same system gives them structural advantages that allow them to lead the lives they live. I was one among them – till age 40. I knew about caste differences, of course, and found its indictments in literature and films moving. But I became aware of it in a whole new way when the then Indian government, led by V. P. Singh, tried to implement the ‘Mandal Commission’ recommendations about affirmative action in favour of SCs/STs/OBCs (Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/Other Backward Classes) in 1989. I was just about to give my Boards then and it affected my life in a very direct way: it meant, among other things, that I may not get admission in the college I desired due to the quota that was reserved for students belonging to scheduled castes and tribes. I eventually did get into the college I dreamt of, and academically at least, went on to do most of the things that I wanted to.
I, of course, put it all down to hard work – which had been my only mantra in life, inherited from strict teacher parents and reinforced in a Roman Catholic missionary school. I sincerely believed it to be the only magic key that had opened up all doors of opportunity for me and I self-righteously attributed the puny successes of my life to it… until 2016, that is, when for the first time, I fully realized the part played by the structural advantages that I’ve always had as an upper-caste Hindu.
The realization came in the wake of my co-teaching a course on ‘Diversity’ in a Liberal Arts College in the Netherlands. We had structured the course around different markers of identity – gender, race, class, nationality, religion and language. We couldn’t include more as, in the block system that the college followed, we could teach for only six weeks. Some of my colleagues wanted to include ‘age’ and ‘disability’; I would have liked to add ‘caste’. That couldn’t happen, but I did include it in the class discussions - explaining to my international students that caste is to India what race is to America. In fact, it was some readings that we had during the ‘Race’ week that compelled me to think anew about my own caste existence. I learnt a lot more in that course than I taught.
This kind of caste blindness that I’ve just described is impossible for a person born into a lower caste, especially into the lowest of them – ‘the untouchables’ (achhyut). That’s because they live the humiliation of their caste every day of their lives, in every sphere of activity. Two such lives - the author’s uncle and mother - are at the heart of Ant Among Elephants.
The book was published in 2017: that’s very significant. For 2017 happened to be the 70th year of Indian Independence; and the book demonstrated that independent India has failed its minorities, even after seven decades of its existence and despite all the democratic, secular ideals enshrined in its constitution (framed by one of the greatest leaders that this land has produced, B.R. Ambedkar - an untouchable). 

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Super Scientists by Susan Price

Hey, I landed a gig with a 'proper publisher'!

Super Scientists by Susan Price
Rising Star are the publishers and it's one of an extensive series of 'Game Changers' aimed at different reading ages. There are books about game changing entertainers, computer pioneers and 'hidden heroes' or people who did great things but were never given their due.

Initially I was offered a choice between writing about game-changing sports people or scientists. An easy decision for me. Sport has always left me cold but science has always fascinated me.

Writing the book was difficult and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There was a strict word number but Rising Stars wanted eight scientists, which worked out at about 1,500 words each. The brief was: a short introductory account of each subject's early life, followed by a broad account of their main achievements.

This was easier for some than others. As an exercise, try covering Einstein's achievements and life in 1500 words, while being readable and comprehensible at the same time. (And people thinking 'writing for kids' is easy.)

The Super Scientists are:

Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton, 1643 - 1727
Of course. How could you not include Newton? When it comes to science, he wrote the book: Philsophia Naturalis Principia Mathmatica, it's called.

     He is credited with inventing the cat-flap. And calculus, which he invented so he could figure out the orbit of the planets and the extent of gravity's pull. He inserted a bodkin (a flat, blunt needle) between his eye-ball and eye-socket and pressed on  it to alter the shape of his eye-ball and see what effect that had on his vision. He was -- odd. But maybe that's what made him such an amazing scientist.
     He was an alchemist, which was a quite sensible thing to be at the time and his alchemical research indicated that the world will end in 2060.
     Forty years to go. Looking around at the world today, I feel that, in this, as in so many other things, Newton was right on the money. 

It was during Newton's lifetime that the Royal Institute was founded, to further research in science and adopted as its motto; 'Nullius in verba.' (Take no one's word for it.) This struck me as such sound advice that I adopted it as the motto of the book.

Caroline Herschel, 1750 - 1848
Caroline Herschel
The first professional woman astronomer. (King George III paid her to 'sweep the sky.') I became very fond of Caroline, who moved from being an uneducated skivvy in her mother's house to an accomplished mathematician.
     She came from a remarkable family of German musicians (who didn't believe in educating daughters.) Her brother, William Herschel, was twelve years her senior and worked in Bath, England, as a musician and shipped Caroline over to act as his housekeeper. It was he who taught Caroline mathmatics with his handwritten 'Little Lessons for 'Lina'. Big brother William didn't seem to have the same objection to educating girls as his parents and taught her music too. Offered the chance of education, Caroline seems to have soaked it all up like a sponge.
      Conceiving a passion for astronomy, William didn't so much 'discover' Uranus as figure out that it wasn't a comet (as everyone else said) but a planet. It's been said that Caroline was merely 'her brother's assistant' and she certainly did assist him -- she also came up with a new way of describing the position of stars, was the first to discover many astronomical features and produced a couple of detailed star catalogues. The'star catalogues' used by astronomers today are still based substantially on her work. I think that qualifies her as more than 'an assistant.'

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin, 1809 - 1882
Charles Darwin changed the way the human race thinks about itself.
     I had to leave out quite a bit about him because there just wasn't room. I would have liked to include his friendship with an ex-slave, John Edmonstone, who taught Darwin taxidermy in Edinburgh. (Darwin was supposed to be studying medicine but, being far more interested in Natural History and collecting specimens, wanted to learn how to preserve them in lifelike poses.) He mentions Edmonstone in his letters home and says he is 'a very intelligent man.'*
     Edmonstone was able to tell Darwin about the rain-forests of Guyana and that made Darwin mad to see a rain-forest. He got his chance when Captain Fitzroy wanted 'a gentleman companion' who was also able to make notes on natural history to accompany him on board his ship, the Beagle. The story of Fitzroy's shocking temper and Darwin's quarrels with him also had to be left out in favour of an explanation of Natural Selection.
*It should be said that some authorities point out that Darwin does not give Edmonstone's name in his letters to his family and therefore it cannot be said with certainty that Edmonstone was his taxidermy teacher. Of course not! In 1826, in Edinburgh, you just couldn't move for freed slaves who'd spent time in the rain-forests of Guyana and were expert in taxidermy, so it's very probable that Darwin actually met one of the other Guyana travelled ex-slave taxidermists resident in Edinburgh in 1826. (FGS.)

Marie Curie, 1867 - 1934
Marie Curie

For me, Marie Curie was one of those people that you've always heard of but don't actually know much about, so researching her life was a pleasure. She wasn't allowed to study beyond the age of 16 (because she was female and females weren't, in Poland at that time. Nor in most other countries, it has to be said.)
     The Russians, who ruled Poland, discouraged education as a way of keeping the Poles down. With her older sister, Bronislawa, who wanted to be a doctor, Marie joined the 'flying university' an illegal, secret university that 'flew' from one private home to another to avoid detection. Later both sisters travelled to Paris to continue their studies.
     Marie's meeting with and marriage to Pierre Curie has to be the greatest love story in science. (I don't know of any others.) Curie was an unusual man for his time,  seeming to have no trouble accepting the fact that Marie was his equal and, possibly, the better scientist. When she refused his proposal because she wanted to return Poland and work there, he was prepared to give up his own work and follow her. It didn't come to that because, on holiday in Poland, she discovered that Krakov University wouldn't admit her, on account of her being the wrong sex. She returned to Paris, married Pierre, and the rest is scientific history.
      After their marriage, Marie continued to work and research, with Pierre's full support, even after their daughters were born. For their time and place, this was very unusual.
     Pierre joined Marie in her work into radioactivity, but the idea was hers and she led. When they announced their discoveries, The Royal Institute of London invited them to lecture about it -- but only Pierre was allowed to speak because the Royal Institute building would crack from attics to foundations and fall down if a woman spoke in it. Or something.
     When they were awarded the Nobel prize, only Pierre was nominated initially. He complained. Marie had begun the work and in the latter stages they had shared it equally, so why, he asked, was she not mentioned? This ensured that the Nobel went to both the Curies and Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel. (Although, with no disrespect at all to Madame Curie, possibly not the first woman who deserved a Nobel.) Later, after Pierre's death, she continued her research and isolated radium in its pure form. For this she won a second Nobel, becoming the only person to win a Nobel in two different scientific fields (physics and chemistry.)
     Curie was killed by the radioactivity she researched. She often carried lumps of it around in her pockets without any protection and it was almost certainly the cause of the rare blood disease that killed her. (Pierre Curie actually died in a road-traffic accident -- he was knocked down by a horse-drawn cart and a cart-wheel passed over his head. However, accounts of him at this time indicate that he too was almost certainly suffering from radiation sickness. And possibly fell under the cart because he was sick. In which case, radiation killed them both.)
     I couldn't resist including in the book the fact that Marie Curie's cook book is still so radioactive that it has to be kept in a lead-lined box and researchers have to wear protective clothing to read it. An idea for a new cookery contest show? Beat the geiger counter?

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein, 1879 - 1955
Albert's section was, as you might expect, one of the hardest to write. In 1,500 words, remember.
     Damn the man, in one year, 1915, he published four ground-breaking papers while still working as a patent-office clerk. There was no way I could cover everything he did.
     Indeed, at one point my editors despaired and said, let's drop Einstein and put in someone else. His theories are just too difficult. (They were struggling with them themselves.)
     I disagreed. A book of game-changing scientists without Albert Einstein? That would just be daft.
     So I suggested we take another approach and my editors liked the idea. So Albert stayed, but with the following admonition:

 Einstein's ideas are very hard to understand. Your brain will ache.

     I go on to say that when Einstein's papers on relativity were published even scientists found them hard to understand and many people today still balk at them. I reasoned that this gave young readers a face-saving get-out clause. If they couldn't understand the chapter -- well, no wonder, because Einstein's ideas give even the brightest people trouble. And if they did understand even a little, then they could feel proud of themselves.
     Relativity always gives me a buzz, even though I understand almost nothing about it. The Einstein quote I chose to head the chapter (each chapter has a quote) was:
'The physical world is real.' -- This statement appears to me to be, in itself, meaningless, as if one said, 'The physical world is cock-a-doodle-do.'
As a teenager I delighted in the thought that the solid world about me could melt, thaw and resolve itself relative to that untouchable, apparently fragile but oh so powerful thing; light. That pretty  sunlight was, in fact, electromagnetism, one of the most powerful forces that shapes the universe. A force so powerful that it not only gives you sunburn but warps time and space so that if you could reach light-speed (which you can't, but if you could) time would stop and the craft in which you travelled would expand until it passed through every part of the universe simultaneously.

Tu Youyou, 1930 -
Tu Youyou
I had never, to my shame, even heard of Tu Youyou but this modest woman has arguably saved more lives than anyone, ever. She used her knowledge of Western science and ancient Chinese medicine to find a more effective cure for malaria than the quinine that's been used for nearly 400 years.
     Her discovery was that the abundant wild plant artemisia had been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine against 'intermittent fevers' which are a major symptom of malaria. Oddly, in an almost prophetic touch, her father invented the name 'Youyou' for her by adapting a line of poetry which translates as something like, 'the bleating of deer as they eat wild artemisia.' (Tu is her family name.)
     After years of patient research into the ancient manuscripts that detail traditional Chinese medicine, together with much experimentation and testing, Tu and her team developed the drug now known in the West as artemisinin from the plant artemisia.
     Tu tested the drug on herself because, she believed that since she had developed it, she was responsible for its effects on other people. Therefore, she should be one of the guinea pigs. If only our politicians has a similiar sense of responsibility.
     The drug has proved safe and effective. The World Health Organisation (WHO) now term it 'an essential medicine.' It's suspected that it may also be effective against cancer.
      The drug was developed in the 1950s under Mao, and I had to skip lightly over the politics in a book aimed at young readers. It wasn't until the end of the 1990s that WHO scientists found out that Tu had led the team of Chinese scientists who had discovered artemisinin. (She was almost unknown in China as well.)
     In 2015, at the age of 84, Tu was given the Nobel prize for medicine. She was the first Chinese person to win it for that discipline and the first Chinese woman to ever win a Nobel.

Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking, 1942 - 2018

With Stephen Hawking, as with Einstein, I got to contemplate, again, the kind of mind-twisting ideas that interested me in science to begin with. Ideas such as: 

     Has the universe always existed, for an infinity of time, or did it begin at some point? If so, when?

     If it began at a certain point, what was there before it?

     And if the universe began at some point in time and filled up a certain amount of space with its mass, where did that mass end and what was there outside it?

I remember getting my brain tied up in tight knots at the age of about 13, as I tried to grasp these ideas and their implications. I hope this book will pass on some of  this mental torture to today's youngsters. (In fact, I have already given a copy to a young friend, in a bid to melt his brain.)

In the early 1960s, when Hawking was studying at Cambridge and coping with a diagnosis of motor neurone disease, there was a great argument going on in physics between those who believed that the universe had always existed and always would (the 'Steady State' theorists) and those who believed that the universe was expanding and, therefore it must, at some time in the past, have been smaller. 

Hubble had described the 'red shift' of distant galaxies, which meant they were moving away from us. The red shift is like the Doppler effect in sound applied to light. Light waves approaching us reach us more quickly and more often, that is, with higher frequency. They appear blue. Light waves moving away from us reach us less often and more slowly, with lower frequency, and appear red.

No matter into what part of the sky astronomers looked, the light reaching us from galaxies was in the red end of the spectrum, which meant the galaxies were moving away. This supported the idea that the universe was expanding, that the mass it contained was exploding from some central, much smaller and denser point. The universe, they suggested, may have begun with this explosion. Steady Staters described this idea, mockingly, as 'The Big Bang Theory.'

Okay, said the Big Bangers. If the universe has always existed in the same steady state, how do you explain the red shift?

Easy, said the Steady Staters. There was a 'creation field' between stars where new matter was constantly being created. It was this that pushed stars further away and caused the red shift. But the universe had always existed. It had never been shrunk down to a single point. It had never gone 'Bang!'

At the age of 26, in his doctoral thesis, Properties of Expanding Universes, Hawking proved mathematically that the 'creation field' theory was wrong and that Einstein's theory of general relativity was compatible with a universe that shrank and expanded. He argued that the shrinking of the universe to a small, unimaginably dense point -- a singularity (aka a black hole) -- was a predictable part of the universe's structure.

That was pretty much the end of the Steady State theory and, as so often, a name given in mockery became the accepted term: The Big Bang Theory. (Hawking has appeared in the comedy series of the same name. And also, in cartoon form, in The Simpsons.)

I also learned that Hawking was feared for his reckless mobility-scooter driving, which is reflected in this video. (Be patient with the advert.)

 In his later years, Hawking led work on 'String Theory' with the aim of linking relativity and quantum theory. Relativity deals with the unimaginably huge: galaxies, spacetime, the speed of light; while quantum theory deals with the unimaginably tiny: sub-atomic particles. They had always been regarded as separate disciplines but since they exist in the same universe, it follows that, somehow, they are linked. If they could be brought together to form 'a theory of everything,' said Hawking, 'then we would truly know the mind of God.'

Hawking died in 2018. In the same year, for the first time, scientists 'observed' a black hole swallowing a star by monitoring the blasts of energy released as the star was destroyed. Black holes ceased to be merely theory.

Mae Jemison, 1956 -
Mae Jemison
I have to admit that I'd never heard of Mae Jemison either but once I had heard of her, she had to be in the book.
     As a child, she was inspired by Star Trek's Lieutenant Uhura to study science and think about space travel. But she also trained as a dancer and, for a time, worked as one.
     At the age of 16, she left home to study chemical engineering at Stanford, an unusual choice for a woman (well, girl) then. And she encountered prejudice, though whether it was against her age, her colour, her sex or all three would be hard to figure out. She said:
"Some professors would just pretend I was not there. I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was the dumbest question he had ever heard. Then, when a white guy would ask the same question, the professor would say, 'That's a very astute observation.'"
Nevertheless, she gained a degree in chemical engineering and went on to gain another in medicine. She gained her medical degree in 1981 and spent time working overseas with the Peace Corps. In 1983, she successfully applied to NASA and spent five years working in the control room. She was there in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after take-off, killing everyone on board. It didn't put her off.

In 1992, she went into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour and worked in the European designed space-lab, studying two of the things which most affect the human body in space: weightlessness and motion-sickness. Weightlessness damages bone and muscle density and is also the cause of motion-sickness, as the body tumbles about. As with sea-sickness, the nausea can be severe enough to put a sufferer out of action.

Since leaving NASA, Jemison has founded the Jemison Group which aims to produce technology to solve such problems as how to cheaply connect remote communities with health care, and affordable ways of generating power from solar energy.

She also started an international science camp called, The Earth We Share, which aims to introduce young people to science and to make them aware of the problems we face. Jemison has also said:
"We look at science as something very elite, which only a few people can learn. That's just not true. You just have to start early and give kids a foundation.'
Oh, and Jemison is the only real space-traveller to have appeared in Star Trek.

   Game Changers: Super Scientists

   Find out more about Susan Price at her website

Friday, 24 April 2020

We should be being creative ... shouldn't we? Jo Carroll

Take this time, we are told, to learn something new. To explore a new hobby. To notice small delights that would normally pass us by.

This morning a contributor to Woman's Hour told me I could use the time to shave the bobbles off an old sweater; it would, somehow, make me feel like a new woman. I could take a virtual tour through the British Museum and gaze at artefacts that I usually scramble to see through a horde of other visitors. I can find a webcam to follow and watch as eagle chicks hatch, squeal for food, and finally spread their wings. I can listen to concerts. I can join a virtual choir. I can pick up my work-in-progress and transform it from it's current muddle into something beautiful (coherent would be a start).

The trouble, for me, is that I struggle with being told what to do. And under normal circumstances I'd rather eat my own feet than be told what to do by a Tory. But these are not normal circumstances. And so I am doing as I'm told: walking once a day, shopping only when I must, not allowing friends nor family across the threshold. Do I really have to better myself as well?

This is, I know, a bit of a rant. And I have sung with Gareth Malone, spent a glorious afternoon in a museum, and watched a National Theatre play. I've paused on my daily walk to notice the blossom, the swans mating (they do it in the water and he weighs her down so has to hold her head up with his beak on the back of her head so she can breathe), the rainbows on so many windows. And the work-in-progress has had some attention (though not enough).

Today I'm done with self-improvement. Over this last weekend a daughter allowed her boys to dye their hair green. Another has thrown the national curriculum out of the window and she and her daughter are planning a trip to Italy. Maybe it shouldn't surprise me that I have rebellious daughters why my impulse is to yell 'Sod Boris' from my rooftop.

But I won't. I'll go for my compliant walk; I shall read and write and this evening my singing group will Zoom. I will obey the rules. And the work-in-progress? Time will tell if anything I've written in these past weeks are any use. I can't help feeling that I am more creative when I am allowed out to play.

And you? Are you inspired by lockdown? Or do you feel it stifles any original thought you once thought you had?

If you want to see what I've written in more liberated times, do read The Planter's Daughter

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Time in the Time of Covid19 by @Edenbaylee

The world is finally united. 
I just wish it was for something good instead of the deadly Covid19 virus. 
Being isolated at home with my husband is not a hardship. We’ve worked from home for years, but now, I’m cooking a hell of a lot more! We don’t go out for dinner like we used to. We did, however, venture out of the house over a week ago, but that was for essentials. 
Okay, I lie. 
Wine really isn’t an essential, but it makes life a bit easier. 

Physical isolation from the outside world has thrown off my sleep patterns, even more so than usual. The days of the week, normally a marker of tasks and events, are now cluttered in my mind. 
Does Monday feel different from Thursday or Friday? Does it even matter?
Certainly, the precision of time is now less important. There are fewer (no) appointments or meetings I need to keep. I don’t have to check my schedule because … well, there’s no urgency to be anywhere.
Instead, mundane tasks such as making meals, cleaning, and laundry now occupy more of my attention. 
This might explain how I nearly forgot about my turn to blog here (23rd each month). Has it already been a month since my last article?
Time has warped for me.

I carve out my days with segments of bad news, writing, food prep and cooking, social media, an exercise class via Zoom, a nightly cocktail with a girlfriend, and more bad news.
I should skip the news, but I can’t.
Many of us have had to rethink the way we interact with people. Thankfully, media platforms such as Messenger, Facetime, Whatsapp, and Zoom have allowed face-to-face meetings. At a time when we are distancing from others, it’s comforting to see a friendly, animated face, even if separated by a screen.
My reasoning for this is that we cannot know how long we’ll be under lockdown. As a pragmatic optimist, I also fear we will not all come out of this unscathed. 

Though time is finite, I’m not rushing to get back to what used to be normal. Once the distancing measures are relaxed, there will be a lengthy adjustment period with all the scars that go along with it. I hope to be here again in a month, but I won’t take that for granted. 
Stay safe, and do tell me how you’re doing. Has time warped for you as well?

Big virtual hugs, 

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Fiction, Reality, Memoir... by Mari Howard

Life in rural England...
I am a fan of The Archers… the Archers potters along, but I find myself these days hoping that something might have a successful outcome — why must the Archers mirror society, and more relevantly, does it?  The Rob and Helen storyline was exciting, moving, and telling, a warning about coercive control… now the Emma and Ed one informs about the desperate plight of a rural population struggling to make a home and living… but, if that crash lands in total failure, doesn’t it, somehow, also teach that there can be no escape, none at all, and leave listeners depressed and hopeless?

I don’t know. I don’t believe in offering my readers total ‘happy endings’ in terms of ‘getting what we want’, but I hunt for a bit of balance. I watch Call the Midwife for relaxation, fully realising that any happiness achieved is not, of course, always an outcome in real life, but at least I am relaxed and entertained. I have friends who can’t 
watch: remembering labour and birth they don’t
want to revisit it on screen...
Our cat choosing not to watch Çall the Midwife...

The kids in CTM’s East End might well really have no shoes, rats in their homes, and desperate mothers did die of back street abortions. And it was the 1950s. And, I was then a middle class small child who as yet didn’t know, except about the shoes. 

So, with domestic violence, child poverty, and failing relationships, can we and should we accept ‘happy’ endings now in our secular 21st-century world? What is a ‘happy ending’? Fairy stories often end with the rather empty, cliched stock phrase ‘and they lived happily ever after’. 

Is compromise a ‘happy ending’?  Why might we now prefer an ending which is open or even tragic? Why are these endings considered ‘more realistic’ and why do we desire ‘Realism’? Was Fleabag’s ending what we want: open, but unresolved?

More specifically, is the realism in soaps and TV dramas truly real? Are the characters real? Is it consistent? The ‘realism’ may inhabit the dialogue, but breaks down when characters supposed to be professionals (as in the drama Dr Foster, particularly inept and depressingly focussed on negativism, sex and rows) or running a successful business, behave like street kids at home with their partners. Do so many of us do this that is realism?  It cuts talk, yes, but what else? Violence isn’t ‘acceptable’ but it’s what we do? Meanwhile total lack of realism reigns in the boring bits such as when medicine or business is being practised. Of course we’d not expect long boring ‘being at work’ scenes, but we do need, if insisting on accuracy and realism, to be shown whether this character or that are competent people or already living a chaotic life of emotional stress, mistakes, snapping at colleagues, on the edge… will it result in mental breakdown and inability to function in a professional capacity? Realism? Rather, these stories require suspension of disbelief! What do they say about relationships but selfishness, misery, and middle class domestic violence? Is that  our only ‘realism’ today?

Is there maybe a ‘message’ contained in these dramas: if so, why? Are they the descendants of ‘kitchen sink’ plays written by ‘angry young men’ of the 1950s –  Kingsley Amis, Arnold Wesker, Stan Barstow… John Osborne’s Look back in Anger being the iconic example. As Hobbs said, human life is “nasty, brutish and short”. And is unlikely to be anything else?

Perhaps writers feed the public what it wants? Or are we writing out of our frustrations and regrets, sadnesses, disappointments and rage?  The recent memoir phase has covered topics from the life of minorities, whether of ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, or other groups who find themselves in what feels an unfairly negative position in a culture which suggests that everyone can and should ‘have it all’. Helpful or unhelpful to read, these memoirs aren’t written to entertain, or ‘lose yourself in a book’ but to expose life’s unfairness, to highlight disappointments, tragedies or frustrations. Occasionally there’s a ‘happy ending’, as with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love or  Alice Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, where the protagonist obtains their goal, and thus solves the problem. Girl with Dove by Sally Bayley leaves us knowing that 'up by my bootstraps' may sometimes reap dividends...

And so memoir may deliver the hope, while fiction highlights the grim reality…?

To embed reality into drama or fiction needs care and insight. Diana Evans puts the problems of the black middle-class into novel form, (Ordinary People): it is just that — ordinary… (Evans is great at writing about boredom so that you feel it!)  Tayari Jones does far better in An American Marriage, going deeper into character, developing (and demonstrating through interaction and dialogue) motivations and ambiguities, which demonstrate an empathy with her creations, and creates a page turning story rather than flat complaint. The young black American author Angie Thomas does superbly with her page-turning THUG (The Hate You Give), chronicling the struggles of escape from the inevitable
A lively, compelling read...
place class and skin colour has assigned her and her fellow African Americans.

If novels can entertain, inform, and open our minds to the lives of others while supplying at the same time as satisfying read, is this impossible for drama, especially soaps and TV drama?  Conclusions with ambivalent, open endings, even happy ones, usually involve growth and change. Soaps and TV dramas are the sources of quick-fire entertainment. Characterisation can slip in order to pace or literally ‘sex up’ a story in this preferred relaxation for many people. Novels may speak more constructively, memoirs less so. But memoirs, possibly, are informing the lack of if not happy then satisfying endings in the threads of soaps and the themes of dramas. People are made aware of the sufferings of others, maybe even find pleasure in the satisfaction or schadenfreude which appeals, and maybe also reassures them, that the lives of others are not necessarily better than their own: the grass is not greener, and happily ever after can be dismissed as a myth.

Of course, I would still like Ed and Emma Grundy to reconcile, but I suspect a Thomas Hardy influence at work on the ending…