Your Voltaire from your Trollope


(Mark Seton [CC / Flickr])

What do you think you are doing in my library?

I see you skulking around as if you think you’re Hercule Poirot looking for clues to a murder which, I assure you, has not happened. I run a respectable household. Your invitation was to my husband’s soiree, which is in the drawing room. As an aspiring Miss Marple, I am certain you have noticed the distinction between the drawing room and the library.

Are you avoiding my husband by feigning an interest in books? Surely a man so accomplished at skulking must have a guilty conscience, which is a perfect qualification for my husband’s company. If I had such a thing, I would be positively revelling in the company of rogues he invited in my name. As I do not, I prefer my own company which you are now intruding on.

Keep your impertinences to yourself.

Of course I have a conscience. I have maintained its pristine condition by doing my duty as a hostess. I have supplied you with canapés, with the most accomplished harpist in the Home Counties and I with brandy. I graced you with my company until the brandy rendered you convivial enough to keep your own. Now I wish to keep my own company in my own library outwith the presence of those who do not know their Voltaire from their Trollope.

Please remove your petit-bourgeois smirk from your countenance. It’s an essential distinction in this room if no other. You may, if you please, smirk your way around the rest of the house for as long as the name ‘Trollope’ entertains you. You may smirk at it in the kitchens, in the parlour, in my bedroom, and if it pleases you, the servant’s quarters are entirely at your disposal.

In short, every room in the house is yours to smirk in, except for this one.

Farewell. Indeed.

Close the door behind you, and do not lurk on the other side.

He’s gone, George. You can come out from under the chair now.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

A New Leaf for Autumn


(Jamie Davies [CC / Flickr])

Celia knew it was going to be a bad day when she heard the rustling emanating from the living room. She diverted to the kitchen and downed her first cup of coffee before she felt ready to face it.

Francis was on his knees, surrounded by piles of paper and supermarket carrier bags.

“Again?” Celia couldn’t keep hr dismay out of her voice.

Francis looked up. “First day of autumn, darling. Perfect time to turn over a new leaf.”

Celia looked for somewhere to sit down, but all the chairs were buried under mounds of paper. “The leaves don’t turn over in autumn, darling. They fall off the trees, cover everything in sight and generally make a big mess.”

“Oh, don’t be such a pessimist.” Francis was squinting at a piece of yellowed paper, looking as if he was having trouble making out the words. “We’ve been talking about decluttering for years.”

“Yes, decluttering,” said Celia. Not pulling everything out of the corners it’s been hidden in, moving it around and putting it back.”

“That’s why it’s time to turn over a new leaf,” said Francis. “Ah, this is the receipt from the chap who put up the shed. Better keep this.”

“Darling, the shed fell down five years ago.”

“Still…” Francis put the paper on top of a pile of similarly yellowed papers on the armchair, which slid on to the floor.

“Autumn,” said Celia.

Francis looked at her as if he had no idea what she was talking about.

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Self Esteem for the Yes Man


(Simon Evans [CC / Flickr])

You look like a man who needs to talk to someone, so why don’t you get it off your chest? Tell me what’s on your mind.

No, let me guess. The look on your face tells me a thing or two about you before you even speak. It tells me you’re a man stuck working for a boss with half your intelligence? Believe me, I’ve been there.

Girlfriend who knows how to want but not how to thank. Been there too.

No girlfriend at all? Got that T-shirt.

Tell me some details, let’s see if I can help you. We’ll start with how to calibrate that boss of yours. Sounds like he’s a sheep, so it shouldn’t be difficult. We’ll get to the girlfriend problem later. Dimwit bosses are good practice. Pickup technique is a little harder.

Now, tell me about your latest problem at work.

Ah, right. So to summarise, you got the assignment in three days early and – let me guess – your line manager had you spend those three days rewriting round in circles until you ended up back where you started just in time for the deadline.

This is a problem technically called the bossmuppet. The less they understand what you’re doing, the more they have to make you redo it so they can say they’re actually managing you instead of riding your coattails. The best way to deal with them is to hand everything in at the last minute so they don’t have time to go Kermit on it.

That’s what it’s called. The first step is to learn the jargon.

But let’s examine the real problem here. It’s not the bossmuppet, is it? We need to look at the other half of this interaction. The half that turns up in every interaction that leaves you with that look on your face.


Now don’t take this the wrong way. It’s a common problem with low self-esteem which, let’s be honest here, is your real problem.

You are a yes-man. I’m sure everyone in the office says so. Just not to your face.

You’re frowning because you know, in your heart, that it’s the truth.

The question before us now is: what are you going to do about it?

Well, yes, denying it is the first stage of acceptance. No, don’t dismiss it, I learned this stuff in seminars with the world’s leading experts on self-esteem…

Hey, I’m offering you the solution to all your problems here and you’re just walking away…

I can’t understand why no one ever takes me seriously.

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Inspirations: Terraforming Earth with Iron

  • Iron sulphide could encourage marine algal growth.
  • Small-scale experiments have shown it moving carbon from the atmosphere to the deep ocean.
  • It could offset global warming, but the large-scale effects are unpredictable.
  • In 2012, Russ George provoked controversy by boosting fish stocks in an unregulated experiment.


Marine algal bloom south of Cornwall, UK (Mike Peel [Wikimedia Commons])

In 1988, oceanographer John Martin was giving a lecture at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Perhaps he became a little carried away with his research, because he put on his best Dr Strangelove accent and said, “give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age”.

He was being flippant – but not that flippant. The research behind his quip is still being discussed as a way to restore fisheries and, as Martin was hinting at, to counteract global warming. To put it another way, Martin was talking about terraforming our own planet. Thirty years and several small-scale experiments later, oceanographers and marine biologists are still discussing and debating whether Martin’s half-tanker of iron would actually work and if it did, what it would actually do.

To put it another way: could we and should we?

Where should the iron go?

Martin’s research revolved around sampling station PAPA in the Gulf of Alaska, roughly half way between the Canadian Pacific coast and the southern end of the Aleutian Islands. Those waters are packed full of the sort of nutrients that marine algae need to grow, but Martin found that not much algae actually growing there. After a few experiments, he concluded that there was one nutrient missing: iron. Marine algae don’t need much iron, but without the trace amounts they do need, they couldn’t do much with all the nitrates and phosphates around them.

The oceanic ecosystem is vast, as we’d expect on a planet that hides more than two thirds of its surface under the sea. Before Martin’s experiment, no one had thought much about trying to manipulate it because it was assumed that such a massive system would need


(Miwok Follow [CC / Flickr])

an impractically massive manipulation. When Martin showed that all the North Pacific algae needed to grow was a trace amount of iron, he had identified a manipulation on a small enough scale that it might be possible to do it. His idea of iron fertilisation went on to become one of the key suggestions in the field of geoengineering:  intentionally manipulating the earth’s climate.

Sampling station PAPA was in what is called a ‘high nutrient low chlorophyll zone’, or HNLC. The HNLCs encircle the earth in the sub-Arctic regions of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and also in the sub-Antarctic zones of the Southern Ocean, which is the ocean that encircles Antarctica. The high nutrients refer to all the goodies floating around that algae need to reproduce into more algae. A quick way of measuring how much algae there is in the water is to measure how much chlorophyll there is – that’s the green stuff that plants and algae use to harvest energy from sunlight – so low chlorophyll means not much algae.

From iron to an ice age

Martin’s quip about an ice age came out of research on global warming, which was a fairly recent research area at the time. Before talking about what chucking iron in the sea has to do with global warming, I realise there are still a few people who think that two centuries of pumping carbon into the atmosphere cannot possibly have any consequences, so it’s worth looking at some headline figures compiled by the


Historic global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels derived from Antarctic ice core data (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

International Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC is an international consortium of scientists that compiles data from many different sources into a report that is updated every few years.

Their latest report was released in 2014 and is vast and highly technical, but it’s worth looking at some of the headline figures in their synthesis report: the most important being that the global temperature rose by 0.85°C (0.5°F) between 1880 and 2012, and continues to rise by around 0.05°C per year. If that doesn’t sound like much, it’s worth remembering that the difference between 1880 and the coldest point of the last ice age was around 6°C (3.3°F), and that rate of increase adds up to another degree (0.6°F) every twenty years.

The main reason for the rising global temperature is carbon dioxide, which is produced by fossil fuels. Since the industrial revolution, we’ve been digging up carbon that has been buried for the last 300 million years, in the form of coal and oil, and burning into


Atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii (Earth System Research Laboratory)

carbon dioxide. Since the days of James Watt and Matthew Bolton, carbon-releasing technology has spread across the world so that every year, more carbon was released than the last. That trend at least has levelled off in the last three years thanks largely to the spread of renewable technologies, but we’re still pumping huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

We only have to step outdoors and look up to understand that the atmosphere is a large place, but that doesn’t mean its capacity is unlimited. The IPCC’s physical science report tells us that the atmosphere contained some 278 parts per million carbon dioxide in 1750, before the industrial revolution got started, and rose to 390.5 parts per million in 2011. The year after the report was published, it broke 400 parts per million. As carbon dioxide rises, so does the Earth’s temperature.

So what does all this have to do with iron and oceans?

Sending carbon to Davy Jones’s locker

The answer lies in the physical properties of carbon dioxide. It’s a very stable compound, so once it’s found its way into the atmosphere, it tends to stay there. The only natural process that removes it is, as we all learned at secondary school, photosynthesis: the process by which plants gather water and carbon dioxide and use the energy from sunlight to make glucose and oxygen. What they didn’t tell us, at least at my secondary school, is that most photosynthesis happens not in the leaves of plants, but in single-celled marine algae floating close to the top of the ocean surface.

Martin’s insight was that while algae require a lot of different nutrients to divide, they stop when the first one runs out. In the HNLCs, the first to run out is iron. With more


The sub-Arctic Pacific Ocean: a shipwreck off Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands (NOAA Photo Library [CC / Flickr])

iron, algae could divide more and convert all the nutrients floating around in those oceans into more algae. Those algae would then be eaten by animal plankton, which in turn would be eaten by fish and so the carbon drawn from the air would move up the food chain.

What particularly interested Martin was that some of that carbon would sink. Because photosynthesis depends on sunlight, the subpolar oceans are highly seasonal, with algae and animals growing and dividing in the long days of the summer and then dying off when the winter closes in. Here in Britain, anyone who visits the coast at different times of year can watch the sea turn from blue during the winter to chlorophyll-green in the summer as it becomes saturated with photosynthesising algae. There is even more growth in the subpolar oceans because the longer days mean more sunlight.

When the algae and many of the animals that feed on it die, many simply disintegrate. They become the fertiliser for next year’s burst of growth. But some of them sink into the deep ocean. As they do, they take the carbon that forms them to a place where it can’t find its way back into the atmosphere. If enough carbon was to sink, Martin reasoned, global warming could be consigned to history.

EIFEX’s diatoms

Martin himself retired soon after his quip about the ice age, and he died a few years later in 1993. It was left to others to see whether his idea worked in practice. Several small-scale studies have shown that a small amount of iron in the right place can indeed cause a lot of algal growth. One of the more convincing was the so-called European Iron Fertilization Experiment (EIFEX) led by Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. Smetacek and his international colleagues were able to trace the massive growth of a bloom of algae called diatoms, and then follow them as they died and at least half of them sank to a kilometre. They lost track of them after that, though it’s safe to assume that they kept sinking.

The EIFEX team weren’t able to measure how much carbon they removed from the atmosphere. There have been a lot of attempts to work out exactly how much carbon will be sent to the depths by a ton of iron. The lower estimates say that it would remove about 1,000 tons, which is a lot but probably not enough for it to be feasible to throw around enough iron. The higher estimates are that a ton of iron could sink over 100,000 tons of carbon, which would make it worth a try. One of the more cited models estimated that iron fertilisation could reasonably be used to remove a gigaton of carbon (that’s


Icebergs in the Southern Ocean (David Stanley [CC / Flickr])

1,000,000,000 tons) of carbon from the atmosphere per year. That would slow down the rise in carbon levels but while we’re pumping 10 gigatons (The level measured in 2014 was 9,855,000,000 tons) up there every year, it wouldn’t turn the rise into a decline.

Enter DMS

But perhaps it wouldn’t have to. Lowering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is not an end unto itself, but a means to the end of halting the rise in global temperature. As marine algae photosynthesise, they produce a chemical called dimethyl sulphide, or DMS. When DMS is released into the atmosphere, much of it reacts with oxygen to form sulphides.

While carbon dioxide warms the Earth by reflecting heat back toward it, sulphides have the opposite effect: they reflect heat from the sun away from the Earth. The process is less direct than the ‘greenhouse’ process of carbon dioxide: sulphides encourage the formation of clouds, which reflect heat away before it gets caught up in the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. Iron fertilisation would offset global warming not only by sequestering carbon in the deep ocean, but also by generating clouds that keep heat out of the atmosphere.

Why, then, do we not see ships full of iron sulphide heading for the subpolar oceans to cool down the Earth?

The law of unintended consequences

The answer is that even the exponents of iron fertilisation are cautious about it. Geoengineering involves tinkering with a vast and complex system in ways that can’t be


(Defence Images [CC / Flickr])

properly tested beforehand. The best mathematical models in the world are only as good as the data, which is woefully incomplete. The only way to find out what the effects of tinkering with the Earth is to try it, and then we all have to live with the consequences, for better or worse.

Martin himself suggested one danger, which is that overdoing it would lower the Earth’s temperature so far that it would cause another ice age. Carbon dioxide was down to 200 parts per million at the height of the last ice age, and a dropping the Earth’s temperature by a few degrees would be just as bad as raising it by a few degrees. In fact, it now appears that it’s unlikely to be a problem: ocean fertilisation simply won’t remove that much carbon.

A more pressing worry is that when dead algae sink into the deep ocean, it’s not just carbon they’re taking with them but all the other nutrients that would otherwise have fertilised next year’s bloom. Fertilisation might work very well for a few years but after


(Davide D’Amico [CC / Flickr])

that, the rest of the nutrients simply may not be there. A few gigatons of carbon might have been removed, but at the cost of sterilising vast tracts of ocean that supply commercial fisheries and feed great whales.

Another concern is that the clouds formed by DMS release would tend to move rainfall from the subtropics to the tropics. The result would be floods in places like Bangladesh and Bolivia and more droughts and wildfires in places like Australia and California – as if there aren’t enough already.

Time to move on?

There’s no way to tell how realistic these models are, and it’s quite possible that the problems caused by checking global warming with iron fertilisation would be less serious than the problems caused by not checking climate change with iron fertilisation. We are, after all, already engaged in a massive geoengineering project by pumping all that carbon up there in the first place.


(Tim Donnelly [CC / Flickr])

In 2009, a group of scientists summed up the concerns in an editorial for the Nature journal. The title summed up their position: Ocean fertilization: time to move on. They were not advocating against geoengineering in itself, but arguing that the risks of ocean fertilisation outweigh the likely benefits.

While most of the interest in ocean fertilisation has come from academic scientists, who have always abided by the precautionary principle and kept their experiments to a small scale, there is no law against it. Resolutions have been passed by the International Maritime Organization and under the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, allowing small scale research studies but condemning large-scale attempts at geoengineering. However, they amount to no more than a voluntary agreement by the signing governments to not do it. They don’t include sanctions for anyone who takes it into their head to try it.

Lessons from salmon

Which is exactly what entrepreneur Russ George did in 2012, when he dumped 120 tons of iron sulphide in the North Pacific. George’s experiment was on too small a scale to have an appreciable effect on atmospheric carbon, but that wasn’t what he was trying to do. He had recently formed a company called the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation,


Coho salmon (BLM Oregon & Washington [CC / Flickr])

which claimed to be working with the Haida Nation – indigenous Canadians living mostly on the Haida Gwaii archipelago off the coast of British Columbia – with the aim of restoring their fisheries.

George kept his activities quiet until after the event, when they were uncovered by The Guardian. The revelations were met with a storm of protest out of all proportion to the mere hundred tons of iron, aimed more at the principle of unregulated attempts to manipulate the environment than the specific experiment. The Guardian article quotes oceanographer John Cullen:

History is full of examples of ecological manipulations that backfired.

Others were concerned that unaccountable fertilisation schemes like George’s might provoke a backlash against potentially useful research. Victor Smetacek, who headed the EIFEX trial, was quoted in New Scientist:

I am disturbed and disappointed, as this will make legitimate, transparent fertilisation experiments more difficult.

George’s experiment might have attracted less criticism if it could have been written off


Sockeye salmon (Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [CC / Flickr])

as an unsuccessful cowboy escapade, but that’s difficult to do for one simple reason: it does appear to have worked.

Exactly how well is rather difficult to establish. Satellite images show that there was a much more chlorophyll in the fertilised area than there had been the year before. The Corporation’s website confidently asserts that there were far more salmon in the year after the experiment than there had been for years, but cites an article in The Globe and Mail newspaper rather than a technical report. The Fraser River Panel reported that the number of salmon returning to the Fraser to spawn doubled in the year after George’s experiment (it’s in the figure on p.27), which does support the Corporation’s assertion. Unfortunately, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans only report up to 2011.

Nobody was measuring how much carbon it sent to the deep as George was interested in building up a fishery rather than geoengineering.

Carbophobes vs carbophiles

The experiment earned some bravos among the chorus of raspberries, notably by


Scanning electron micrograph of diatoms (Amada44 [Wikimedia  Commons])

aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, who has spoken and written a lot on the subject of terraforming and whose main claim to fame is his work on solar sails that I’ve pontificated about before. Perhaps it’s not surprising that praise for ocean fertilisation comes from a man used to thinking big. He refers to a quadrupling of salmon stocks in the year after the experiment, but only cites Russ George’s blog as a source, which is hardly an impartial estimate.

Zubrin’s view is that of a maverick. He actively welcomes the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a boon for plant growth and food production, and sees George’s experiment as a way of taking advantage of that. He dismisses the ‘antihuman ravings’ of George’s detractors, who he labels as ‘carbophobes’.

There is a whole other debate to be had about Zubrin’s ‘carbophilia’, to adopt his own terminology, though the whole concept of ocean fertilisation would be moot if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s more to plant and algal growth than how much carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere.

While George’s one-off experiment is unlikely to have done any lasting damage, nobody seems to think that it would be a good idea for anyone with a hundred tons of iron to throw it wherever they wanted more fish. That would be to carry out geoengineering as an incidental consequence, which is what we call ‘pollution’.

Fertilisation or pollution?

Though pollution is hardly a rare phenomenon, as the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation states on a section of its website titled ‘Geoengineering’ – hinting, perhaps, at grander ambitions than restoring salmon:


(Jutta M. Jenning [CC / Flickr])

One must ask, why is it OK to dump billions of liters of known hazardous material into our fresh water and oceans, but media-based controversy arises when placing 120 tons of a known nutrient back into the ocean, that has been scientifically shown to be in necessary and beneficial?

As we’ve seen, there are answers to the rhetorical question. The effects of ocean fertilisation are not all positive. It’s not for one small company to decide what is best for the world, though I type those words knowing full well that it would not be the first small company to do so.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

A Picnic Without Honey


(DJ Cockburn [CC / Flickr])

“I blame the weather,” said Frank.

“You would,” said Daisy. “You work for Bayer.”

“Guys, we’re supposed to be taking a break,” said Samatha. “The idea of having this picnic is to get to know each other in a non-confrontational setting, remember? And we’ve got Nutella for the sandwiches.”

“I like honey,” said Daisy.

“Well I tried three places and none of them have any, so you’ll have to make do with Nutella.” Samantha handed the jar to Daisy.

Daisy didn’t take it.

Samantha returned to the basket and pulled out another jar. “Or marmalade.”

She paused long enough to be sure Daisy wasn’t going to react, and returned to the basket. “Or chutney. Or peanut butter. And we’re going to be nice to each other.”

“All right, I’ll have the chutney,” said Daisy. “But it’s not because of the weather. The sun is shining like it does every summer, but listen.”

The silence dragged on until Frank said, “go ahead. I’m listening.”

“Not to me,” said Daisy. “To the sky. The silent sky that should be buzzing with bees.”

“They’ll be back,” said Frank. “Another week of sun and they’ll be waking up. In fact…listen…there’s one now.”

“That’s a wasp.” Samantha dived for the picnic basket. “Quick, cover the Nutella.”


Inspired by the controversy over neonicotinoid pesticides.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Non-fiction review: Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

BadPharmaCoverLike any good scientist, Ben Goldacre starts with his hypothesis:

Medicine is broken: the plane flies but it crashes much more often than it needs to.

The rest of the book is a meticulously researched and eloquently argued support of the hypothesis, which certainly convinced me. I should add that 15 years of medical research, albeit with little contact with the pharmaceutical industry, brought me most of the way to agreeing with Goldacre before I started reading.

Goldacre devotes a lot of pages to laying out his arguments, but his central thesis can be boiled down to one sentence: the pharmaceutical industry has the resources to aggressively pursue a vested interest in what medicines are prescribed, while the bodies that should be keeping them in check, such as regulators and academic researchers, are all too often apathetic or complicit.

In short, we have exactly the situation we’d expect from outsourcing healthcare to organisations that sink or swim by their profit margins rather than by the quality of healthcare they provide.

What Bad Pharma isn’t is a polemic against the pharmaceutical industry. The fundamental problem with any easy solution is that, to quote the opening sentence, the plane flies – most of the time. There can’t be many of us who don’t have a good reason to be glad of modern medicine, either on our own behalf or that of someone close to us. Goldacre doesn’t want to smash the system but to make it work better. He pursues his goal through various routes including the AllTrials campaign, which pushes for trials of medicine to be to be registered in a way that makes it impossible for sponsors to pick and choose what to make public.

It’s more difficult to work for improvement than to call for a structure to be torn down, so Bad Pharma is a harder and less humorous read than Goldacre’s attack on quackery, Bad Science. Medicine is not as soft a target for the simple reason that unlike quackery, it actually works. There is a baby that we wouldn’t want to throw out with the bathwater.

Bad Pharma asks regulators, professional bodies, patient organisations and you and me to step up and make the system better. I’m bound to agree because it’s in line with my oft-droned opinion, that medicine will only prioritise the public good if it’s publicly led.

That’s not to say that there’s no place for the pharmaceutical industry; even if there was a public body competent to take over the process of developing, manufacturing and distributing medicines, we’d only replace the problems associated with profit-orientated corporations with the problems associated with any organisation that has a monopoly on an essential service.

It does mean that if we expect medicine to go on for us as patients, we have a responsibility to engage with making it work. Which is, after all, the way democracy works.

The essentials of the book are summarised in Goldacre’s 2012 TED talk:


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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Summer at HappyKamper


(wakefieldpinball [CC / FLickr])

Welcome to HappyKamper, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll be your Kampster – that’s what we call it – for as long as you’re here so if there’s anything you need, anything at all, please feel free to ask me.

What’s that, sir?

Ah, the old ‘no toilet roll in my chalet’ question. A classic never ages.

You see, it’s the responsibility of the housekeeping staff to check that. I did ask them to make sure this time, but they requested me to attend to my own business. I won’t lie, those weren’t the exact words that were used, but it’s my job to make your stay as pleasant as possible – within budgetary constraints, naturally – and a verbatim report would not fit that brief.

I’m afraid they don’t trust me with a key to the toilet roll cupboard, so I’d suggest the quickest way to get some is to make a complaint online. You should get a reply within three days. If the wifi in the chalets is on the blink again, it’s usually reliable in the bar. And there’s a toilet in there as well, which you may be needing.

Any more questions?

Yes, madam, I’m afraid it is chucking it down with rain, and the forecast says it won’t let up all week. I hope you’ve brought a coat? Or an umbrella?


Well, not to worry. Here at HappyKamper, we’ve anticipated the complete lack of forward planning that afflicts the English holidaymaker. I’m sure it rained in your summer holiday last year, didn’t it? And the year before that? And you were just as surprised and unprepapred for it then as you are now?

Yes, I thought so.

I should do a mindreading act for tomorrow night’s cabaret. I’d get paid more than I get for this, and I promise you I’ll be more sober than old whatsisname will be by the time he gets to Summer Lovin’.

Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen, you have a treat in store.

But back to the problem of the rain. I suggest you toddle along to the gift shop and buy one of their overpriced brollies emblazoned with the glorious clash of purple and orange that is the HappyKamper logo. If you’re lucky, it won’t fall apart before the end of the week, but you can always buy another if it does.

Sir, I heard your muttered question, and I will answer you. You are correct. This is my last day working here.

I’m tempted to add that HappyKamper can go to hell tomorrow, but by this time tomorrow, you’ll be telling my poor, benighted replacement that you’re there already.


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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Lessons from Brontosaurus


(Zachi Evenor [CC / Flickr])

“This is a brontosaurus,” said Miss Collinson. “Now, who can tell me what this is?”

Jasmin stuck her hand up. This was easy.

“Yes, Jasmin?”

“That’s a tyrannosaurus, Miss.”

“That’s right, Jasmin. They’re both di-no-saurs.” Miss Collinson pronounced the word slowly, emphasising every syllable. “Big, fierce dinosaurs. They lived a long time ago.”

Jasmin put her hand up again.

“If they were so big and fierce, how did people live with them?”

“That’s a very good question, Jasmin. You see, people didn’t live with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs came before there were any people. Now, let’s look at another…yes, Jasmin?”

“Miss, if there were no people when they were around, who called them Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus?”

“We did, Jasmin. Or at least, the people who discovered their fossils did.”

Jasmin put her hand up again.

“One more question, Jasmin.”

“If the dinosaurs were around before people, what was around before the dinosaurs?”

Miss Collinson frowned. “Well, I don’t know. Slime, probably. Maybe some fish…but we’re talking about dinosaurs today. Is that all your questions, Jasmin?”

“Yes, Miss.”

Because if Miss Collinson didn’t know something, nothing would ever be the same again.

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Greater Minds: Hilary Mantel on the life and project

Shortly before her death, Susan Sontag said ‘that somewhere along the line, one has to choose between the Life and the Project’. Hilary Mantel quoted her in the third of this year’s Reith lectures, while she was talking about the life of playwright Stanisława Przybyszewska; a woman whose life might have been longer had she been slightly less diligent in her pursuit of her project.


Hilary Mantel in 2010 (Chris Boland [CC / Flickr])

Having spent a substantial amount of time and effort writing stories that, judging by the comments that you don’t see, are read by more spambots than people, the question of how much of the life should be devoted to the project struck a certain chord with me.

This train of thought runs on an entirely different track to my last pontification on Mantel’s Reith lectures, and I thoroughly recommend listening to the lectures themselves:

Lecture 1: The day is for the living: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 2: The Iron Maiden: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 3: Silence grips the Town: podcast and transcript.

Lecture 4: Can these bones live? podcast and transcript.

Lecture 5: Adaptation: podcast and transcript.

Animation by detail

Any writer of fiction will have wrestled with the problem of how to breathe life into the figures we conjure from our imagination. A biographer’s subjects once breathed for themselves, but they don’t spare her from the problem. Too much detail, too little detail


Portrait of Susan Sontag in 2009 by Juan Fernando Bastos (Wikimedia commons)

or the wrong choice of detail will deprive the biographer’s subject of a second life on the page as thoroughly as if he were a figment of the writer’s imagination.

Mantel has spent much of the last decade writing her trilogy of Thomas Cromwell novels, from his rise to immense power under King Henry VIII to the same fate he’d arranged for many other inconvenients: he was executed for treason. Mantel has taken on the challenge of both the novelist and the biographer so perhaps it’s no wonder that her lectures are suffused with the Sontag’s choice: how far do we allow a project to take over our lives?

At first glance, Mantel may not be the obvious person to ask that of. She has two Booker prizes and a Damehood to her name, is a well enough regarded public intellectual to be invited to give the Reith lectures, and presumably the success of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has left her more than comfortable financially. Her project appears to have set up her life in a way that most of us can only dream of.

Before writing her off as being too successful to talk about the travails of a struggling artist, we should remember that she was writing for decades to reach that position. While her previous novels were well regarded by critics, it wasn’t until she was well into her fifties that she achieved the prominence she enjoys now.

Robespierre’s last victim

She must have spent much of her life in a situation that anyone who has embarked on any project of ambition can relate to: wondering whether a project that’s likely to sink without trace is worth the time and effort it demands. Wondering whether anyone will read that half-written novel or set eyes on that half-finished sculpture.


Stanisława Przybyszewska (Hansah [Wikimedia Commons])

Mantel’s third lecture explores that wondering not through her own experience, but through the tragic life of Stanislawa Przybyszewska. Born in 1900 as the product of artist’s affair with a famous but married playwright, Przybyszewska spent her childhood in Paris and Vienna before returning to her native Poland. After a brief marriage to a man who died of an overdose, it’s perhaps understandable that she closed the door on the world around her and immersed herself in history.

Przybyszewska devoted herself to writing a historically accurate play of the life of Maximilien Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution of 1789. For Przybyszewska, the project became an obsession and life an inconvenience. She neglected her health, prioritising morphine over food or warmth. As her health deteriorated, her play grew until she finally completed a document that was so comprehensive that it would have taken fourteen hours to stage in its entirety. It was rejected repeatedly, then her heart was further broken when it was staged but edited down to five hours.

Przybyszewska, Mantel tells us:

…couldn’t see the difference between the truth and the whole truth: for her, to omit was to falsify, and because she was anxious never to mis-state, she overdetermined her direction and her method. (Lecture 3)

She died at the age of 34, consumed and destroyed by the project:

Multiple causes of death were recorded, but actually she died of Robespierre. You don’t want to work like that, be like that. You hope your art will save you, not destroy you. But


Maxmilien Robespierre in 1790 (DIREKTOR [Wikimedia Commons])

it’s a sad fact that bad art and good art feel remarkably the same, while they’re in process. (Lecture 3)

The resurrection project?

Her short life is, Mantel tells us, ‘an awful warning’ to any of us who are tempted to cede too much of the life to the project:

If anyone thinks writing is therapy – I beg them to look at this life. (Lecture 3)

Mantel’s lectures are peppered with hints that she has struggled to avoid, if not dying of her subjects, of allowing them to take over too much of her life. Most writers talk about their characters, but Mantel repeatedly refers to her own characters as ‘the dead’. She opened one lecture:

St Augustine says, the dead are invisible, they are not absent. You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true…if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art. (Lecture 2)

Many writers will admit to a degree of obsession with their work. It may or may not be healthy, but sometimes you have to step beyond the rational to pursue the project that refuses to co-operate. However, I’ve never before heard a novelist talk about how we ‘chase the dead, shouting, ‘Come back!’’ (Lecture 2).

Mantel was of course speaking metaphorically, though I found I couldn’t avoid thinking about Beyond Black, one of her earlier novels that sees a woman called Alison physically tormented by the shades of men she knew as a child. I had the sense that there are times when Mantel feels that Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries treat her as those


Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger (Dcoetzee [Wikimedia Commons])

ghosts treated Alison.

Yet while Mantel warned us not to follow Przybyszewska in abandoning the life for the project, she did not say that we should abandon the project altogether for the sake of the life. Mantel’s decades of pursuing the project did, after all, cumulate in success. She is warning us that the project is not a substitute for life and that if we’re tempted to regard it as therapy for the tribulations of life, we should keep poor Stanislawa Przybyszewska in the front of our minds lest we follow her example.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

Cold Freedom


(Martin Addison [CC / Flickr])

You want to know why I was waving a knife around in that shop? It’s a fair question, constable, so I’ll give you a fair answer. It was because there wouldn’t be no kids in a booze shop. They might’ve got upset.

I know you don’t understand. You’re still wondering why I didn’t at least try to nick anything, so you won’t catch up with that yet.

All right, I’ll try to explain.

I went straight from foster care to prison.

Don’t roll your eyes, I’m not feeding you a sob story. I know it’s not gonna stop you charging me. I’m explaining, like I said I would.

No one told me I’d best stop snatching phones when I turned eighteen. I’d done a couple of stretches as a young offender, which meant I had a record when I was charged as an adult and, well, you know what happens next.

I spent the next year and a half counting the days. I couldn’t wait to be free. No more bars, I thought, no more walls.

Then the day came and out I went.


But free to do what?

How’d you get a job when your address is wherever you haven’t been moved on from by you lot? How d’you fill in the forms for a council house when you can’t read half the words in the questions?

I didn’t take me long to learn something about freedom: it’s cold.

We’re off the record, right? I don’t want my brief hearing this. He might get my sentence suspended.

That’s right, I wasn’t gonna hurt no one. I’m just tired of freedom. I want a dry blanket and a hot meal.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
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