Sunday, 31 May 2009

Hay at Home

Back home after a brilliant, hot and sweaty Hay festival. It feels a million miles away already. We had one last event this morning: Dr Raj Persaud had Quentin Letts in his psychiatrist's chair as an excuse to talk to Letts about his book - 50 People who Buggered Up Britain. This was a great way to round off the Festival, it was lively and topical and very very funny. And it was over far too quickly.
A final coffee at the festival site, lunch in The Grannery (I'm going to miss it, you just can't get veggie food like this in our neck of the woods) then we packed up the caravan and left.
Three hours later we were home. Tomorrow I must don the sober tie and the grey pallour and return to the real world of accountancy.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Morning and Evening

Events at both ends of the day today, leaving plenty of time to lie around in the sun and complain about it being too hot. Never thought I'd be doing that this year.

Started the day with Deyan Sudjic talking about The Language of Things. Sudjic is the Director of the Design Museum and his talk was essentially about design. Never let it be said that we don't try different topics here at Hay. I quite enjoyed this one. It made us think about the impact of design vs fashion vs utility. He covered a lot of ground and it was interesting stuff.

But then came Alain de Botton, the novelist/philosopher. His topic was The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. This is a topic close to my heart, especially as the clock is ticking and our last day in Hay approaches. Soon the sorrows of work will be all too evident. Alain de Botton manages to look at everyday simple things and make them fascinating, funny and entertaining. He looked at jobs that don't get the publicity in fiction that they deserve. How many shows do we see about Police officers, criminals, news reporters? They are well represented occupations in fiction. Aliens might look at book shops and conclude that we spend all our days fighting, murdering or solving crimes. There are other jobs. He looked at Logistics, in particular tracking the lowly Tuna fish on its long journey from ocean to plate. He looked at the biscuit factory worker, and one that is especially on my mind at the moment, the Accountant. (Although, if the accountant is poorly represented in fiction this may soon be addressed as I have just passed 75k words on my novel – watch this space)

This accountant felt real resonance with the picture Alain de Botton painted of this overlooked vocation. Not always in a good way. It was a terrific talk, one of the best so far. I'll probably buy the book, but I'll have to work through the pending stack first because I really am beginning to suffer from books-I-really-have-to-read-but can't-find-the-time anxiety.

This evening we have Jeremy Paxman on The Victorians and an illustrious panel under the heading Dark Matter: Poems from Space. I'll let you know.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Picture from Hay

For a change here's a picture. This was on the first weekend before it got too hot to carry a camera around.


The first question from the floor summed it up. "I'm sure I speak for everyone," he said, "when I speak of the sense of gobsmackedness that we are all feeling."

We had just heard Martin Jaques' talk, the LSE lecture: When China Rules the World. He showed us graphs and tables and extrapolations that showed a Chinese economy which, by 2050, will be twice as strong as any other economy in the West. It was a remarkable and compelling talk that had the audience gasping, oohing and aahing. I can't summarise it. Martin Jaques summarized it and it took him over an hour having set off at a cracking pace. His book, of the same title, comes out at the end of June. It'll probably be challenging and it could be a jolting, scary ride. Read it or hide from it. My guess is that within ten or fifteen years the most useful tool in the armoury of any financier will be a solid grounding in Mandarin.

On a less devastating note (at least slightly) was the panel discussion: Brave New World – Rights and Wrongs in the Digital Future. This was all about the rise of the E-book reader. The panel included Steve Haber of Sony, so a good deal of the talk centred around the Sony Reader, who are also one of the sponsors of this year's Hay Festival. I remain a sceptic about E-book readers. I'm yet to see compelling evidence that the device can do any more than a book apart from the ability to carry a library around. Me, I only read one book at a time. E-readers are bigger, you have to charge them up (and with the best will in the world the day will come when you forget to charge it and it will then be just so much ballast until you find a plug socket, and always assuming you've packed your wire and transformer) and it doesn't have pictures, at least not of any reasonable resolution. I often buy books by their cover. Call me shallow, but I suspect I am not alone. Also, drop a paperback into a puddle and you have a damp, curly book. In the unlikely event that it becomes unreadable it only cost you seven or eight quid. Drop an e-reader in a puddle and you're damp from the tears you'll shed. They are a big investment. That leads me to another thing. I buy a book, if it's good I lend it to Sarah. Would we have to buy two e-readers, an e-reader each? You're looking at a £500 investment here. Sorry it doesn't add up.

    So imagine my luddite surprise when I discover they've been selling e-readers like hot cakes. I heard a podcast last week where this was discussed, (I think it was on Sofanauts, my current favourite podcast) and they have apparently been selling rather well in the US. I put it down to the Kindle having mobile internet capabilities so I reckoned it was just a blip. (The UK version can't do that, it needs a wire.) Okay, maybe it's a short term thing. I still think people will drift back to books (even if they ever drift away). When I'm on the bus I always like to peek at what other people are reading. Will it come down to – he's got a Kindle and she's got a Sony, I wonder what they've got on there? So far I have NEVER seen anyone reading one on the bus or train. Head in the sand, maybe – they'll never catch on. I bet the Chinese are still reading books.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Self-control: One day I’ll try some

No events until evening, so today we went book shopping. It's a dangerous thing in Hay – there are a lot of book shops. There are a lot of books. But tonight there are significantly less books in the shops, because a great many of them are now in my caravan. I couldn't help myself. There are whole rooms, here, filled with Science Fiction. There are whole other rooms filled with Science. There are books about subjects that I didn't even know were subjects. Strange, eclectic topics – like the memoir of a North Atlantic Trawlerman that I could not resist after reading just the first two sentences of the blurb.

When you come to the Hay Festival they tempt you, each day, with a copy of the Guardian newspaper that comes in its own canvas shoulder bag. You collect them. Then you go into Hay and fill them with books. Then your shoulders blister and dislocate and you know you've overdone it. Again. When am I going to read them all!!!

The main event, tonight, was Desmond Tutu, and the festival goers were out in force to see him. We chose Anthony Horowitz, though, and it was a good call. Here is a writer with so much drive and enthusiasm, and so many fingers in multiple pies that it makes you feel kind of guilty for ever thinking that a night's sleep might be preferable to writing. He speaks so quickly, the words falling over one another. But then he has so much to say, and all of it is worth hearing. I know of Anthony Horowitz's work as a writer of children's fiction – Alex Rider etc. But I had no idea how many TV series he has either created or written for: Poirot, Midsomer Murders, Foyles War, Murder in Mind… the list goes on and on. It was over far too quickly. Then as a bonus we wound up in the coffee bar where they had a live feed from the Desmond Tutu gig, which overran, so we got two for the price of one, almost.

Now, I have half-an-hour or so. Time to start making inroads into that hundredweight of books.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Gardens, Spaceships, Antimatter and Pschotherapy.

A packed day in Hay. We started by discovering some Welsh gardens with Stephen Anderton and Charles Hawes. Sarah and I both enjoy visiting gardens, especially since someone else has to do the mowing. This talk, accompanied by photographs, was good source material for some new days out at gardens we are ashamed to admit we'd never even heard of – some of them so mainstream I'm no-way going to admit to them by name in this blog.

Piers Bizony is a space historian. He delivered a talk to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, accompanied by sumptuous archive photos that have rarely, if ever, been seen before. I'm a sucker for all things Apollo. I was 13 when the small step/giant leap was taken and, okay, I didn't really learn anything new, but so what? I love Apollo stuff and I can't get enough of it. Apollo was one of mankind's greatest adventures, and the spirit and excitement of the time was captured so well in this talk. Tempted to buy the book… very tempted, but I don't have bottomless pockets and I'm down to the bits of fluff and sweet-wrappers already.

Then we had Frank Close talking about antimatter. A bit of a slow start, this. A lot of the intro and subsequent talk was focused on a rebuttal of Dan Brown. Yes, I know the antimatter stuff in Angels and Demons is rubbish. I know the facts are wrong. Yes it is annoying and yes it must be massively infuriating to physicists at CERN who work on the stuff. But we weren't there to hear about what was wrong with Angels and Demons, we were there to learn about the current knowledge base of particle physics and of antimatter in particular, and maybe, also, to find out a bit about Frank Close's new book. We got there in the end, but it was only when the questions from the floor began that we started to get to the meat of it. A pity. When he got into his stride Frank Close was extremely good at putting a mind-bogglingly difficult subject across to an intelligent but mixed audience of differing backgrounds. (For the record, I quite liked Angels and Demons, the book, and I do plan to see the film. Yes, Dan Brown does make it quite hard for the reader to suspend his disbelief, especially when he tries to sell some of the nonsense as fact, but you know, he can also spin a pretty good yarn.)

We wrapped up the day with an interview with Derek Draper, the Labour spin-doctor turned Psychotherapist. A bit of a filler, this. Neither of us were sure what to expect. Well, it was riveting. There were all sorts of tensions going on. Uncomfortable questions. Honest answers. Insights into psychoanalysis. Insights into politics. In fact we were moved to search beneath the fluff and sweet-wrappers and we bought the book. We'll be fighting each other for who reads it first.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Stephen Fry, Michio Kaku and cancelled Parkour

Two cracking events at Hay today. Stephen Fry was riveting. He is just so effortlessly clever, and manages to be very funny with it, too. His observations on American culture have nicely piqued our enthusiasm for our upcoming trip to California. There was so much in this event I wish we could get to see a replay. We came out thinking this would be very difficult to top.

Then came Michio Kaku talking about the Physics of the impossible. He is a scifi writer's dream. Nothing is impossible in his mind, just that some things will take a little longer than others. When asked, he said that part of his inspiration to become a physicist stemmed from reading SF, in particular Asimov's Foundation series. He spoke about teleportation, invisibility, FTL travel… After the event I rushed over to the bookshop where he was signing, but – as a measure of how his talk went down – all the copies of his book had sold out.

Parkour is where people (mainly French people) run up and down buildings and do graceful leaps and stuff. There was a Parkour event scheduled in Hay this afternoon and we all stood in the rain for half-an-hour waiting to see it. It didn't happen. Apparently they only do it on new buildings. Oh well.

Belly Laughs, Raga and Jazz

Dave Gorman was as funny as we expected him to be. His book about travelling across America by spending nothing on big corporations is probably a must-read, when I get the chance. (I have one of Dave Gorman's books on my shelf already, along with the other twenty or so must-reads that are demanding my immediate attention.)

He wasn't just funny, though. I think that is part of his appeal. Much of what he says has a core simple truth about it that is very appealing. Why do businesses have to grow to be successful? As an accountant I know the theoretical reasons, but as a human, come on, why can't a business just be? Probably the reason is that all the other businesses are working to the must-grow-to-survive model, and maybe that is why the world is in the depth of poo that it currently finds itself.

So then we rounded off the day with a concert that, on the face of it could have been a bit weird. Amit Chaudhuri is a novellist but also a musician that has put together a band that plays a mixture of classical Indian raga, jazz, rock and blues – and anything else that might drop into the mixing bowl along the way. It really works. This is spooky stuff. An hour wasn't enough and I would have bought the CD if I hadn't already blown my wallet on coffee and ginger homemade cake. The highlights of the set, for me were a magical version of Gershwin's Summertime, and one of Chaudhuri's own compositions, Foreign Education (I may have the title wrong, but those who were there will know which one I mean.)

It was a long day. We got back to the caravan after midnight, and to cap off an excellent day the sky was clear, hardly any light pollution, and we saw the Milky Way and then… shooting stars.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Hay Festival - Sunday

A glorious day. Again the sun is shining. It's mid-day and we're back from the festival site after a fascinating morning in the company of Dan Pearson and, again, Professor Martin Rees.

Dan Pearson is a garden designer who spoke about landscape and how it has influenced his approach to garden design. He cited examples of places from Yosemite to Gower that have moved him and informed his ideas when creating spaces that are personal to others.

Gardening is not my bag, but not one Latin botanical name passed lips his during the entire hour, instead he spoke about spaces and framing and transitions, and I was totally enthralled. I may even be inspired into mowing the lawn when I return home.

Then we had more of Martin Rees. Today he spoke about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life in the universe. I was pleased that he was more complimentary to Science Fiction writers than yesterday, with complimentary references to Arthur C Clarke in particular. In fact he said that he often "advised students to read first-rate science fiction rather than second rate science." I had to write that one down.

He spoke to a sell-out audience, that was moved to the larger Barclays Pavillion, so great was the interest. He expressed a hope that there might be more manned exploration of space. He spoke of the possibilities of man returning to the moon, although he felt that in all likelihood the next steps on the moon would be those of Chinese astronauts.

Some of the follow-up questions made we wonder if Star-Trek-Science was now the principle source of scientific education in this country. Perhaps Buzz Aldrin was correct when he said that SF writers had a lot to answer for in stunting the growth of manned space exploration. Wormholes and other FTL fancies are certainly more sexy than rockets these days. Maybe we ought to be more careful when we use these plot devices.

Okay, it's Dave Gorman this evening, then some Indian/Jazz fusion to round off the day. Right now I have the afternoon off for some work on the novel, sitting in the shade of a hawthorn tree beside a babbling stream. Does it get better than this? Naw.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Hay Festival - Saturday

Martin Rees, the Asronomer Royal, kicked off my Hay festival this morning with a talk about The World in 2050.

He covered much of the usual climate change pessimism that probably all of us here share. What are the solutions? Professor Rees has his own favourite, a global grid centered around massive solar power stations based in and around the Sahara. But he warned that these were long-term projects which, like fusion power would come too late. The immediate priorities should be focussed on carbon capture, because we don’t have too many years before the climate tipping point is reached. He also spoke of the threats of population growth and other mass extinction dynamics. He was concerned about the way biotech and cybertech were having an empowering effect on the lunatic fringe of society, and that “the global village will always have its village idiots”.

“There have been five great extinction events in the Earth’s history,” he said, “and humans are now causing the sixth.”

Other matters, and on to space. Only twelve years elapsed between Sputnik and Neil Armstrong, but it has now been over 35 years since man set foot on the moon. There is progress in space, but it will largely be confined to small robotic devices. He’s probably right. It is shame, because where is the passion in sending a pocket calculator to the stars.

Prof. Rees also spoke about the prospect of intelligent computers by 2050 – an indirect reference to the Technological Singularity. He didn’t really commit to a viewpoint, but hinted that he had his doubts, and anyway, how would we know what intelligence really was?

I took issue with one point, his description of Science Fiction writers as “flaky American futurologists.” This is so wrong. Some of us are British (or Manx).

Prof. Rees summed his talk up with a view that the next 40 years will see an ever widening of the gulf between what doors we can open and what doors we should keep closed.

 Other thoughts on Hay so far: well it’s hot! I’m sitting on the grass in the main square and I am concerned because a) we haven’t brought sunblock and b)its hard to see the screen of my laptop. I’m not complaining. Long may it continue.

Next up is Brenda Maddox, the biographer, talking about her study of Geoge Eliot.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Hay Festival

Hay Festival Beckons. Only two days to go. Caravan is nearly packed, wellies and cagouls are ready. Bring on the rain and the wind and the cold, because this year we are prepared, and the BBC weather forecast will not dampen my enthusiasm.
This post is a taster, a bit of a warm-up to flex my blogging muscles. I plan to blog every day throughout the festival. Most of it will be loose; on the fly. Maybe it won’t work, maybe I won’t find a good enough mobile signal, maybe I’ll be swept down the River Wye in the torrent, who knows.
I’ll be listening to Stephen Fry, Martin Rees, Dave Gorman… talks, panels, music… I went through the brochure like a lunatic – Sarah set me loose with a yellow highlighter and I morphed into a man insane. We’re there for the whole week – more than a week, we head out on Friday.
Are we nearly there yet?
Can’t wait

Thursday, 14 May 2009

To Boldly Go

When I was 12 or 13 I remember one particular day when I went into school in a state of nervous excitement. In the playground I found that everyone was the same; anxious, hopping from foot to foot, needing to talk. We had all been part of a shared experience that was far-reaching and important.
The first lesson that day was double games – this is where you have to put on shorts and go out onto the cold, wind-swept playing fields and run up and down in the mud while the other kids kicked a ball around and called you names, like Spaz and Retard.
But this day no one had any interest in football. We had other things to talk about. The previous evening a new series had just appeared on TV. It was special. It came from America, and it was immeasurably better than anything that we had ever seen before.
It was, of course, Star Trek. Forty years later, it’s morning, and I come into work feeling those same butterflies of excitement; the same sense of wonder; the same need to talk about an experience from the previous evening. Because last night I became a child again. I went to the pictures and I saw Star Trek, the new film. There was Captain James T Kirk, young and full of vigour, so too Mr Spock, Bones and Scotty.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no life-long die-hard trekky. I’ve enjoyed Star Trek in it’s various guises over the years, but not in that passionate, dress-up, learn-to-speak-Klingon kind of way that some of my contemporaries seem to favour. But really, last night, I was ready to abandon reason and buy the plastic Spock ears, don the Star Fleet uniform and join the band of the faithful. The new film is superb. In every way. I cannot fault it, and I’m a harsh critic when it comes to SF films. Oh, it’s got all the bad science and the dubious plot lines and the iffy time paradoxes of the original - but so what? It works. My goodness how it works.

And here’s the thing. It’s open-ended. It’s just the beginning. There’s going to be more – got to be.

Live long and prosper.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Motorway Moanicle

NINE HOURS!!! In nine hours I could fly to Denver. Or I could take a leisurely night sailing from Plymouth to Roscoff, in Brittany.
Nine hours is also how long it takes to travel a measly two-hundred-odd miles on UK motorways. Why? Because UK motorways are crap. Poorly designed, badly signposted, absurdly junctioned, and with service areas that merely jolly you along ever closer to that M1, M6, M25 stress-induced heart attack.
Here’s a picture of our journey along the M25. If it were a video it would look exactly the same as this, because nothing is moving. I don’t like travelling on UK motorways. Maybe you guessed. There is nothing about our motorways that is admirable. Someone is to blame. Who is he? Who is responsible for this mess? What was he thinking? I want him here. I want to tell him all that is wrong. It will be a long conversation. There may be blows.

Anyway, we are here at last, in SE London. I planned for us to arrive in time for lunch. We arrived at 7pm. Just enough time for a late tea and maybe an hour of writing. But tomorrow I’ll be better. Tomorrow Sarah and I will get the train into the city, and that will be cool, I like London. Sarah’s off to an art seminar at Westminster Hall and I will have the whole day to follow my nose and explore.

Oh – a word of explanation – what’s a Moanicle?
A Moanicle is something I introduced in my yet-to-be-published book, ‘Travelling in a Box’. It’s a bit like a chronicle... only I moan a lot.