Sunday, 29 January 2012

A scientific interlude

Away from the usual self-advertising and PR plugs for a change. Two items I read recently – one on a website, the other in The Observer – set up some scientific musings. Science to me usually means fascinating things which I don’t understand, but it often leads to trains of thought I wouldn’t otherwise have.

The first item was about chromosomes. I know, of course, that they’re made of DNA and proteins and carry our genes. When I checked Wikipedia, there was stuff about regulatory elements, nucleotide sequences, eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells as well, but (as they keep saying in the film Airplane), that’s not important right now. What is important is that we (humans) have 46 of them. But – and this is the interesting bit – it’s also possible that we have 48. And why is that interesting? Well, we all know that chimpanzees also have 48, but – and this time it really is the interesting bit – so do potatoes.

In the evolutionary ladder, therefore, we are on a par with potatoes. (The temptation at this point is to digress into the class structure implicit in varieties such as King Edward, Belle de Fontenay, Duke of York and Saxon. Instead, I’ll just point you to the admirable website

The second piece of science, however, offers hope that such parity will soon change because stem cell researchers in Edinburgh have succeeded in cultivating new brain cells. Not by sucking out real brain cells and prodding them, or from the practice of using bits of embryos, which upsets so many people who think only God should do that. No, instead they've done stuff with skin cells. (‘Prodding’ and ‘done stuff with’ are scientific terms.) Thus, we can look forward to a future in which our descendants are clothed not in skin but in brains, which will give us a clear edge over our potato cousins who, even if they did manage to follow our evolutionary lead, would still get peeled and thereby lose their powers of ratiocination.

To some of you, this may seem a frivolous misuse and indeed misappropriation of important scientific advances, but I take my lead from one of the greats of British comedy, Tommy Cooper, whose use of statistics was exemplary. He once revealed the following:

“Apparently, one in five people in the world are Chinese. There are five people in my family, so it must be one of them. It’s either my mum or my dad, my older brother Colin, or my younger brother Ho-Cha-Chu.
I think it’s Colin.”

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Monday, 23 January 2012

Unsafe Acts

One of my claims to fame (he says, as if there were several) is that I earned an acknowledgement in Ian Rankin’s dagger prize winning novel Black and Blue. Members of the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association are asked to list any areas of ‘special expertise’ so that fellow members can contact them if they need information on different topics. I’ve written countless videos and DVDs  about offshore safety as well as actual safety induction programmes, so that was one of my ‘specialisations’. In Black and Blue, Rebus had to make a trip to an offshore platform and Ian wrote to ask what sort of thing that involved for a ‘visitor’. I wrote back and thereby got myself a mention.

So, apart from name-dropping, why am I writing this? Because, on the 15th of next month, Unsafe Acts, the 5th novel in my Jack Carston series, will be published and, as the cover image and the title suggest, it involves an offshore platform and safety. It also involves some reflections on homophobia and how, even in the 21st century, that’s still a problem.

It’s been through several drafts and, as I was reading the proofs, I again got the strange feeling that, while I knew I’d written it and my name’s on the cover, it was hard to remember how it happened. When something’s out there as a self-contained thing – whether in tangible form as a paperback or in the same completeness as an ebook – it somehow seems instantaneous. The book has become a fact. When you’re writing, you’re always poised on the edge of wondering what the characters are going to do, where they’re going to go. The process is one of ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’. So for me the writer, Unsafe Acts was a succession of instants which eventually stopped. But for me the reader, it’s a complete, set thing with its own internal logic and a journey which has only one path. I suppose for readers coming fresh to it, the uncertainties are still there because they don’t know where the characters will take them until they’ve arrived.

The other question you sometimes ask yourself, when you’re reading a novel you’ve written, is the one that most writers hate: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ And again, it’s often difficult to answer. With Unsafe Acts, I know that the seed was sown in a casual remark from a friend, Mike Lloyd-Wiggins, who said one day ‘You ought to write about an offshore platform. There’s plenty of stuff going on out there.’ (This was the same friend who also said, a few years ago ‘You ought to write a story about a figurehead carver’. So thanks, Mike.) But that’s just the seed. When you see the dense vegetation that’s grown from it (I know, crap metaphor, but I’m lazy) you really do wonder where all these people were hiding, what made them appear. Where did they get their attitudes?

One other interesting thing about this book (for me anyway) is that it’s a different Jack Carston from the one I first met when I wrote Material Evidence. Of course, I’m different now from the person I was then but I don’t think that means we’ve followed the same path. He now seems so fed up with the hoops he has to jump through to satisfy his superiors and tick the right administrative boxes (what a field day these crap – and now mixed, too – metaphors are getting), that I really wonder whether the next book will find him leaving the job altogether.

Anyway, forget the Jubilee (definitely) and the London Olympics, the date for your diary is the day after Valentine’s Day.

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Sunday, 8 January 2012

A mish mash and hodge podge of titbits.

I’ve just got the go-ahead for another book in Pearson’s ‘Brilliant’ series, this time on Academic Writing. Also, Helen Anderson, John Grant and others are pestering me to get started on the sequel to The Figurehead, so blogging has been shoved aside. But, since I know millions of people all over the world are waiting for the pearls of wisdom I dispense here, I really must write something.

If you want the thoughtful me, try Richard Sutton’s blog, Saille Tales. He invited me to say something about writing first drafts and, as is usual whenever I have to write and/or talk about writing, I had to step back from it and try to work out what I do.

I’m not an advocate of rigid writing techniques but producing anything worth reading calls for control, discipline and a respect for the medium. Nonetheless, writing for me is instinctive. With non-fiction, I have headings and specific areas which I know I have to cover, but with fiction, I dive into it and just let it carry me along.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Ah yes, pearls of wisdom. Well, for a start there are all the usual political and cultural axes I grind:
  • the total lack of any leadership or credibility in any of our politicians, their undisguised scorn/contempt for us, the continuing expansion of the gap between rich and poor, the dismantling of the health service and education system;
  • the very existence of reality TV, celebrity culture and the seeming refusal to require any talent of those involved in and/or aspiring to it;
  • the abject acceptance that royalty confirms that some people are ‘higher’ than others;
  • the fact that football is about money;
  • Simon Cowell.
But that’s tedious, pontificating stuff that will bore and/or alienate some of the handful of visitors. (My earlier claim to serve millions was merely a hilarious joke.) So I’ll opt for a potpourri (which, given that the ‘pourri’ bit literally means rotten, is highly appropriate).

And that segues neatly into an aside on words and their meanings. If you sign up for the newsletter on the site, they send you a word a day and some of them are fascinating. I now have, for example, three new words to use in descriptions of characters: callipygous, mammose and lissotrichous, the first being of particular interest to both male and female lexicographers and perverts.

Then there’s the word noosphere, which is pronounced No-us-fear, and either sounds the opposite of what it means, i.e. the sum of human knowledge, or is an accurate description of where we’ve reached on the evolutionary scale.

And if you have a tabby cat, you’re referencing a certain Price Attab who gave his name to al-Attabiya, a suburb of Baghdad. Silk was made there and tabbies got their name because their coats were similar to the cloth. (I know, you're now asking yourself how you've managed all these years without knowing that.)

What next? Ah yes, The Sparrow Conundrum was featured on the site addictedtoebooks and I contributed a guest post to Past Times. And the illustration at the top is for Unsafe Acts, the fifth in my Jack Carston series. It’ll probably be appearing towards the end of next month.

And, to end this ramble, two apocryphal items of news, both relating to last year’s (grits teeth, suppresses anger) royal wedding. It seems that Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline is one of William Windsor’s favourite songs and Mr Diamond would have been quite happy to amend it to Sweet Catherine for the occasion. Now, try singing the chorus using that substitution. See? It doesn’t work. The last syllable isn’t strong enough to sustain the note. But they’re the Windsors, our favourite German family, so it didn’t matter that, at Diana’s funeral, Elton John sang the praises of ‘England’s rose’, i.e. the princess of Wales.

It seems, too, that the lyrics of Ubi Caritas were doctored to remove some reference or other that was deemed too risqué for the occasion. I can’t confirm this because my Latin is non-existent. It does seem absurd, but that’s what’s being claimed. The only glimmer of light it offers is that the couple may want to avoid the couplings so cherished by ordinary mortals and therefore will produce no offspring for us to support.

And 2012 is the year of the diamond bloody jubilee. I want to spend it in Jamaica, where the new Prime Minister will be declaring a republic. But, wherever you are, I hope 2012 is healthy, happy, productive and successful for you all. Happy New Year.

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