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Friday, 28 June 2013

Postcards from Plitzvicke Jezera

For those unaware of it, I am at present in Croatia, near the Plitzvice Lakes, today.  This is a world-class wetlands area that gets more than a million visitors a year.  One is transported from place to place by a neat little train-bus, and by barges, all covered in the entry price.  As you will see, it's a place worth visiting.

Hint: I saved the best pictures until last.

There are about 16 lakes, interlinked by waterfalls.
and waterfalls...
...and waterfalls,
with water in between...

with fish.  No fishing is allowed, so they are tame as tame can be.

By the way, i had a polarising filter, but I was too busy having fun to stop and fit it.

See what I mean?

That's all for now...  more later.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Writing for the younger reader

I am in Zagreb in Croatia, doing some general digging for several books, and my spare time has been taken up fighting the zombie armies who masquerade as "support" at the St George Bank.  In the end, I showed the what steely stuff we Old Writers are made of, and terrified the poor dears.  I will get back to how this is done in a few months, because as an old bureaucrat, I know how to spook the timid majority.

 This is a skill I owe it to humanity to share, but not right now.  Here's something I prepared earlier.

It was written for the Children's Book Council of Australia, NSW Branch journal, formerly News and Views, now iRead. You can find that version here, after about the middle of June, but this is a revised version.

During the Sydney Writers' Festival in 2012, I attended a sort of master-class-cum-workshop with a few other writers. It was conducted by Mal Peet, who suggested ahead of time that we read his Life: An Exploded Diagram, to provide a common point of discussion. (It's a brilliant book, by the way.)

Reading his book prompted me to ask in the workshop: what makes a book "a YA book"? We concluded that even if there is probably no such thing as a YA book, there are books that work well with that readership, because, like Peet's example, they offer a degree of insight and reassurance, and deliver notions in a logical way. That's the Short Manifesto.

We discussed Martin Amis' infamous "If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book…". Collectively, we sneered, though in fairness, the ageing enfant terrible (he's 63) was not being as offensive as we thought. He actually went on to say "…the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable." So he's ignorant, but not malignant. Every book written by anything past a novice is written in a minefield, surrounded by restraints.

The world of writing is like a church. Novelists want to be the Deity, but are accorded the status of cardinals. Essayists and critics are bishops, writers of hard-back, glossy-paged non-fiction are priests, writers of children's fiction are seen, by the cardinals, as mere ushers. Writers of juvenile non-fiction stand lower than the ushers, at about the level of the church cat—or something it dragged in.

With my deputy assistant mouse-catcher status, I hate it when people ask me if I will ever write "a real book". Like Amis, they know nothing of my craft. Every writer must consider who the reader(s) will be. My primary trade is as a science writer, writing for adults. On a given day, I might describe the qualities of rocket fuels, the operations of certain insidious poisons within the cell, or why quantum physics tells us mobile phones can't cause cancer.

If I were in the security services, somebody preoccupied with high explosives, readily-available deadly poisons, and lethal radiation would be a worry. I'm not a spook, but I worry about me, too, and that is why the material I write is informative and leads to understanding, but omits key elements. Let me put it this way: I don't do recipes.

I know who my story is directed at, but I also know who else might be reading. And I don't just mean Bad Guys, I mean potential young hell-raisers such as I was in my younger days. I explain the principles, the ideas, the features, but I hold back on the plumbing. (I'll explain plumbing shortly.)

For a writer, no subject should be off-limits, and that applies equally when I am writing for younger readers. Perhaps even more so, which is why my first reading is from the Book of Jerome (that's Jerome S. Bruner in his The Process of Education, 1960):
We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.
Talking with Mal Peet, we agreed that sex scenes were not necessarily off-limits for teens. After all, teenagers can get porn if they want it. In books, it's better to deal with feelings and to leave out what I dubbed "the plumbing", the IKEA assembly manual of carnality. Love and sex are part of life, and it is better to acknowledge them sensibly and move on: no prurient dwelling, and no nervous-Nellying, either.

Younger readers are less patient with nonsense, more demanding, probably more knowing than we realise or would like (let's be honest: we all feel the need to shelter the young, just a bit!). They also have massive gaps in their knowledge and experience, and that puts extra demands on those writing for a young audience. Fill the gaps, but fill them with Good Stuff!

Now, a short rant: some 59 years ago I had to memorise this: Dawson, Mackenzie, Isaacs, Suttor, Burdekin, Lynd, Mitchell, Gilbert, Norman, Flinders, Leichhardt, Roper, Alligator. I won't reveal what this vile and useless catalogue of trivia reflects, but my cohort had to memorise it. The list failed to impress me then, and I retain it to this day only as a party trick few can emulate. The young deserve better of their elders than to be set tasks as foolish as learning that list.

Adults know me as a science writer, but my satiable curtiosity about how and why things happened pushes me to be a story-teller who dwells on historical facts for younger readers. I don't sell them short, or "dumb down" for them, I am an honest dealer—except when it come to roping them in, captivating, entrancing, winning their hearts and minds, because then, like any good story-teller, I get in touch with my inner huckster. For example, see the second item in my Big Manifesto.
So: four things are required:
*  careful, considered, logically structured writing;
*  interesting content (or useful content or both); and most of all,
*  a guided journey into curiosity and wonder.
Last, there's the hook, the grabber. Think how many of your favourite fictional tales begins with a hook (though I gather that the jargon term for this is "portal"). It involves a trip through a wardrobe, a looking-glass or a TARDIS. Where is the rule that says non-fiction should be different? (Those four things are the Medium Manifesto.)

My writing always involves a pursuit of the curious. It might be a question like: what made people think rockets would work in a vacuum? Or what was the Clown in The Winter's Tale doing, planning to buy sugar when Shakespeare died before Britain settled Bermuda? Or how does ricin kill? Or why did so many sports begin in 1859 ±2? I got a whole book out of each of those questions.

To take a recent case, and this time I was writing for Year 5, I can not only prove that Hargraves didn't discover gold in Australia: I can also prove that he did something far more useful, because he and Enoch Rudder conspired to get a gold rush started. This is a good story, and soon I will use it in a larger work, written for adults, as well. (Actually, I started writing the adult book first, it went ugly, so I side-lined it and did the kids' version. Now I can go back and write the Big People version.)

Again, while doing a book for Year 4: I wondered who the oldest and youngest First Fleeters were. I'll stay with this one for a bit, because it shows how dogged pursuit puts the story into history. You can read more about this stuff in About Those Convicts, but here's the short version.

I knew that Elizabeth Hayward and Elizabeth Beckford were the oldest and youngest female convicts in the First Fleet. I looked them up at Old Bailey Online. Then I browsed the other cases heard that day, and found Samuel Burt, who steadfastly spurned having his death sentence for forgery commuted to transportation. I thought this a good yarn, a neat angle: a literate and well-spoken youngster who preferred to swing rather than go to the Antipodes. He must have been scared!

Well, I was wrong. Yes, Samuel yearned for the gallows, but it was because he lacked either the resolve or the depravity necessary to top himself. Thwarted in love, he committed a forgery and handed himself in so the hangman could turn him off. I knew then that I had a really good yarn. I dug and I dug then, asking the story-teller's favourite question: and then, what happened?

I found the answer buried in a 1790 issue of The Times: Samuel's lady relented and agreed to marry him. He allowed his sentence to be commuted, she came to visit in Newgate, caught gaol fever and died. His fate was sealed: he came out in the Second Fleet, was a model prisoner, and by 1794, he was pardoned and had a grant at Bulanaming near Sydney's Newtown.

Now here's the best part: I can't find Samuel anywhere after that! He may have left the colony, or settled into a quiet life, drowned himself or died in the bush: I have nothing else on him. So far. It will be out there somewhere, but I am satisfied with what I have. Half a story, when you are writing for the young, may be better than none, but half a story is definitely better than a whole polished one.

That story-teller's favourite question: and then, what happened? works two ways: it's good for us to pursue, but it's even better when the listener takes up the cry, the question, and joins in the hunt.

So with due respect to Mr Amis, by far my superior as a Lord Cardinal Novelist, this mere rodent control agent says, "serious brain injury" means no-mucking-about, hole-in-the-head stuff. Just try doing what I do, with a hole in your head! When you write for the young, you need to keep your wits about you, not have them leaking out to be scattered on the floor around you.

Martin, mate: Peter Kemp's 2010 review in The Times of The Pregnant Widow drove you into the foetal position, and your tantrum over his panning is famous. We speak of little else in our cheap and dingy garrets. Now, we writers for children know we write for the harshest, most forthright critics alive and we advise due caution. Keep writing for adults, old son, because no amount of brain injury can insulate you from the roasting our attentive young readers would give you.

Now here's the Big Manifesto, still a Work-in-progress: 


A draft recipe for young people's history

I believe a good history for young readers should contain most of these:

• Facts and figures that resonate (i.e., should be memorable);
• Gross and gruesome bits (a sprinkle of ugh! factor makes for memorable);
• Lists offering perspectives and insights (several, logical);
• People's stories with different viewpoints and perspectives;
• Key events, seen from several different perspectives;
• Logical sequences that help readers understand how the story unfolds;
• Dates for readers to do timelines (maybe 16, sprinkled through, not essential);
• Comparisons: viewpoints, lifestyles, social and living conditions;
• Interpretations and reasons for things: insights on what was different back then;
• Unexpected details (contrasts with today, paradoxical bits etc.);
• Policies and practices that drove or determined events;
• Social conditions that influenced or facilitated behaviour;
• Economic and commercial considerations that drove decisions;
• Methods, technologies and techniques that made things possible (steam, germ theory etc.).
Now you really want to know what that list was?  Those names were the rivers encountered by Ludwig Leichhardt in 1844-45, as he explored northwards, in order.  It is totally useless for anything at all, other than as a frightening example of what comes from completely futile "education".
You will see signs of that in a book to be published on October 1 by the National Library of Australia.  It is to be called The Big Book of Australian History, and it will be available in both print as an epub-formatted e-book with loads and loads of links to original sources.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

On being a fast learner of Slovene

We zigzagged from Sydney to Hong Kong to Paris to Zagreb, where we were got at by an ATM at the Zagreb airport.

I put my St George Visa debit card in the machine on the right and requested 3000 Croatian kune.  The machine did nothing but rejected the card.

To test it, I put the same card in the Bankomat machine on the left, and got my 3000 kune, which indicated that there was nothing wrong with the card, and that the first transaction had not registered: if it had dome, I would not have got my money because the amount was close to the daily limit.  Being canny, I took out the tablet and took a shot of the two machines, with my case in between.

Roll on a day or two, when I went to use the card again in Ljubljana (Slovenia), and it was refused. I tried it the next day on another machine.  It still didn't work.  My canny photography was now about to pay off.

Clearly, the St George Bank in Australia had decided that there is something suss going on.  That's careful of them, but you'd think they might ask first, and if not, then when the customer complains, they might do something about it.

24 hours on, I am still waiting.  I have followed up and told them that I want a response from a named officer, willing to use his or her initiative to think outside the box, as I have done.  All I have is one automated response.

In this, the St George Bank treats its customers with contempt. It requires you ring a number using a "freecall" number that is far from a free call, and phones here are hard to access in any case.  So I emailed them.  I told them I had photographed the two machines, with my suitcase in the middle, asked them to consider that my language should show them I am not an Eastern European crook, offering to send a pic of me, with the same bag, AND the card in question.  I referred them to where the pic was visible on Facebook.

I got back a stupid response telling me to call at a local branch (in SLOVENIA??) or to call their "free" number, and indicating that they could not give out personal details (which I had not asked for!).

Having an email address, I replied, attaching  the pic above

Luckily for me, this is one of three sources of funds available to me, but as the others are not through St George, the St George people don't know that.  A customer of thirty years' standing is thrown to the wolves.

Now the question is: will they pull their fingers out?  If they do, I will come back and edit this.  Note added July 8: while I put the fear of God in the media people at the bank, and got action, the "web support" people are still giving me the run-around.

Meanwhile, we are in Slovenia, and slowly gathering a few words of Slovene.  The Slovenians are the most western (not the most eastern, as I said) of the Slavic nations, and have a common border with Italy, but the language is wholly Slavic.  We saw a bearskin with a saddle on it, outside the WCs at a rural gostilna (restaurant) yesterday, and I established that a bear is a medved, which is also the word in Czech (and I think also in Russian).

This comes from two root words: one is med, meaning honey (think mead!) while the other is ved, knowledge, as in the Vedas.  The bear is the honey-knower.

Sadly, there are few helpful bits like this.

It msy not matter in a century from now.  The local languages are probably at risk: most people have some English, young people have excellent English, and half the TV channels are in English with subtitles, most ads have some English words in them and many of the songs are in English.

In a slightly academic discussion on language and politics, a Slovene explained  that the Serbs were disliked because they came to Slovenia, and because they could be understood when they spoke (the similar) Serbian, they failed to learn Slovene.

How, I asked them, were the English speakers any different from the Serbs?

Somebody commented in one of the papers I read that it is time to find a less loaded name for "English".  I happen to agree.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Desert Island Books for travellers.

Forget about sitting on a desert island.  I am about to rack up 34 hours of air-travel and layovers as I zigzag to Zagreb from Sydney, by way of Hong Kong and Paris.  I want something that will sustain and amuse me in flight, and I'm not sure how fully I can recharge my Android tablet that I use to read e-books on the go, so I need a few books of the paper variety.

The problem with a new book is that it might not be what you hoped for, and an old book, well, it might not be as much fun the next time around.  It also needs to be compact.  The best thing about e-books is that they weigh almost nothing.

One advantage of approaching advanced middle age (as I soon will be) is that you forget who done it in a murder mystery, at least if it's a murder of quality, the sort that P. D. James writes, the sort George Orwell was hankering for when he wrote The Decline of the English Murder.

Ah, now there's a possibility: Orwell's essays, or one of his social memoirs, but they're all a bit depressing.  They are all a bit gloomy, a bit intense, a bit like today, in fact.

Down and Out in Paris and London still shapes one of my habits: Orwell said that the person handing out leaflets has to stay until they are all gone, so always take one he said, whatever they are.  It appeals to my tastes as a conservative anarchist (we're the ones that don't believe in blowing people up).

Not that violence is Out.  I have a few murders on the tablet, which has readers for every sort of e-book known, and I have some J B Priestley social essays, so strike those.

I am tempted to take T. E. Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, which was recommended to me by a bookshop manager who knew my tastes.  Forget The Decline of the English Murder, somebody needs to write The Decline of the Quality Bookshop, the sort where the staff actually read some of the books and make mental notes about who will like it, based on what else they like.

I took it down off the shelf: it appears to have been overseas with me once before, because the bookmark in the book is a ticket from the Wiener Riesenrad, that Ferris wheel sort of thing that is always showing up in films set in Vienna.  Well, I know I liked the book last time, it's compact, so it's on the short-list.
Roughly where we expect to be annoying the rocks
over the next two months.

The other tension is that when you are travelling, books tend to be discarded, and that means taking a Really Good Book isn't good, either.  Maybe what I need is one lightweight, compact, loved book that will last and some fat Airport Book.  Carhart weighs in at 240 grams, most of the other contenders are about 400 grams.

One of the books I am working on at the moment has the working title Not your usual rocks. It's one of a series that I am writing, most of them using up research that is left-over, but this one requires fresh material, so I am heading for mountains, caves, coasts, volcanoes, and with luck, some obsidian in situ.

They talk about things being stone dead, we hear of stony silences, but the funny thing is that rocks mostly tell interesting stories.  Hopefully, I will get some interesting new stories from my travels.

Anyhow, there may be a somewhat geological cast to my mutterings over the next two months.  I may even have something to say about the Silex Piano (you can trust that entry, as I provided most of the information that is there).

Sadly, my chances of seeing a real, live Silex piano are low. but you can't win them all.

Friday, 7 June 2013

About the albatross

The albatross has a name that comes to us from Portuguese, where it is alcatras, and while the vowel change that might yield us alcatros is understandable, the changing of the third letter is most unusual.

Most probably, somebody decided that the albatross, being a white bird, should be given a name containing alba, the Latin word for 'white'. It is also odd that the Portuguese name for the albatross should be so similar to the Spanish name for a pelican, alcatraz, known even to those with no Spanish as the name of a certain Californian prison island.

The same word that gives us the first part of albatross also appears in an album, which is a blank tablet with nothing yet written on it, and so gave its name to the sort of blank book we use to stick in photographs or stamps (incidentally, many stamp collectors who care about their craft specialise in collecting forgeries, since imitation is the sincerest form of philately, but I digress).

The alb, of course, is a white tunic worn by a priest, the white of an egg is the albumen (albumins are a class of water-soluble proteins), an albino is a person or animal with a lack of skin pigments and hair pigments, so they appear white, and albata is another name for German silver, a white alloy, while albite is a white mineral.

One of the few alb- words that breaks the pattern is a fish, the albacore, which supposedly comes via the Portuguese albacor, from the Arabic al bukr, which means a young camel. The albedo of a planet on the other hand, is its reflectivity, the extent to which its atmosphere reflects radiation from nearby stars. According to current theory, if an asteroid strikes the earth, the mud and dust which is blasted into the stratosphere will produce something not unlike a nuclear winter.

When the dinosaurs were wiped out by the increased albedo of our planet, caused by the Yucatan asteroid, or the volcanic activity of the Deccan traps of India (which may have been caused by the asteroid in any case), theory says they froze to death, or starved to death because there was no food available for them.

Some biologists think that a few of the dinosaurs survived, because they were warm-blooded and had feathers, and that these dinosaurs are with us today, only now we call them birds. There would probably have been some food in the sea for a considerable time after the earth went dark, perhaps enough to feed a few primitive sea birds until the dust settled and the sun returned.

It may be impossible to test this theory out, but we certainly have seabirds of high albedo today, like the albatross, named for its whiteness, and then there is the penguin, which sounds remarkably like the Welsh pen-gwyn, which would translate as 'white-head'.

The problem, though is that penguins only pass the equator at one point, near the Galapagos Islands, while for the rest of the time, they live only in the southern hemisphere, while the natural habitat of the Welsh until recent times was the northern hemisphere. And to cap that, most penguins have a black head.

It seems that the name 'penguin' applied originally to the Great Auk of the northern hemisphere, sometimes referred to as Pinguinis impennis, which did indeed have a white patch on its head, and that the name was later transferred to those cute and somewhat similar southern birds in waiter's uniforms of black and white — except that almost every species of penguin has a small patch of yellow, which has to serve some useful purpose, though I have yet to find anybody who could tell me what it is.

Puffins, Lunga, Hebrides.
I for one will keep an open mind on how the penguins got their name, since they have a layer of fat below the skin, and 'pinguid' is a rare but valid English word meaning 'fat'.

In fact, so fatty were the penguins that their dried carcases were used as fuel for the boiling-down of seal fat in the South Atlantic in less civilised times, but that stopped before we lost all of the penguins.

The great auk, however, went extinct in the 19th century, hunted into extinction by eager egg and carcase collectors, selling into a trade which cared more about ownership than conservation. I have some notes on that somewhere, so I shall return to the demise of the great
auk later.

Right now, the penguins of the world are holding their own, but the same cannot be said for the albatross, because too many of them are drowning when they try to take the bait from long lines set by fishing boats. Once they are hooked, the magnificent birds drown on the line. This usually leaves a mate on the nest, who must eventually abandon the nest, meaning even more albatross deaths.

Monday, 3 June 2013

A life of pie

The pie, as a pastry-surrounded food item, was certainly known to Chaucer, who tells us of the cook in his Canterbury Tales:
He koude rooste, and sethe, and boille, and frye,
Maken mortreux, and wel bake a pye.
The mortreux, (today, we call it a mortress), is a kind of soup or pottage of bread and milk, or else of assorted meats, and the rest should make reasonable sense if it is read slowly, but what sort of pie did Chaucer know?

There was at least one more, for in the 'Reeve's Tale' Chaucer tells us that the wife of the miller was 'peert as is a pye' — as pert as a pie, but this was no ordinary pie, but the bird we now call a magpie. The Wife of Bath says her fourth husband was 'Stubborn and strong, and jolly as a pie', or in Chaucer's language, 'Stibourn and strong, and joly as a pye', which is back to the magpies again.

The Prologue to the 'Cook's Tale' refers to a Jakke of Dover that the cook has sold after it has been twice hot and twice cold, probably endangering his customers. The Jack of Dover, as we would call it today, was probably a pie, but the rest of Chaucer's pies are all of the feathered, avian variety.

Shakespeare offers us a wide variety of pies, and in Henry VIII, Buckingham complains of the Cardinal of York: "No man's pie is freed from his ambitious finger", but here, too, we find chattering pies, obviously the birds again, while Macbeth announces the apparently alarming news that
Augures and understood relations have
By maggot pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret'st man of blood. . .
Here, though, we have a remnant of an old habit of according names to birds: Tom Tit, Jenny Wren, Jack Daw, and in America, Jim Crow, and in Australia, Willy Wagtail. A proud member of the clan is Maggot Pie, or as we might say, Margaret Pie. It is curious that so many of the birds with given names are largely black, but that is a side issue: does this have anything to do with the 'four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie' of the nursery rhyme? Probably not, but the bird known as a magpie in England, and un pie (pronounced, roughly, 'earn pea') in France, is very like the bird generally known as either a peewee or a peewit in Australia.

Shakespeare also has several people swear 'by cock and pie', which is a pre-Reformation set of rules about what to do when church events coincided. Shylock speaks of how Jacob had from Laban ' . . . all the eanlings which were streak'd and pied', which is a sense of 'pie' that lives on today in our 'piebald'. The Bard also offers us references to the edible form of pie, which seems more often than not to be a mince pie, a pie made with dried fruits.

So the clown in A Winter's Tale plans warden pies for a sheep-shearing-feast, and his ingredients include sugar, currants, rice, saffron, mace, dates, nutmegs, ginger, prunes and raisins. Petruchio, however, speaks of 'a custard-coffin', in The Taming of the Shrew, but here the coffin is just a pastry casing for a custard pie.

A coffin is also the carriage of a printing machine, and we find pies enough in the printing shop as well. Pie or pye is a jumble of type, mingled together higgledy-piggledy when a forme of type has been broken down, and all the handset letters have gone all over the place. And that brings us back to birds again, because this meaning of 'pie' comes from the medieval Latin pica, and that is also the name of the genus into which the magpie fits.

And then we are back to printing again, for Pica is a type size, equal to about 12-point type in today's language, and also a measure of distance in printing, but in medicine, 'pica' is a craving for non-food items such as minerals. Given the small amount of meat that is usually found in the meat pies served to shearers and others in Australia, this possibly chance connection seems entirely appropriate.

By way of a footnote, the clown's ingredient list for warden pie inspired one of my books. Bittersweet.  I started wondering where the clown in Shakespeare's time would have got sugar, and ended up tracing sugar back to where it started, in New Guinea, 9000 years ago, more or less.  But that's another you can buy for your Kindle, if you wish.