June 27th, 2015
A Matter of Life and Death is both awesome and intimate, suggesting that a single tear shed for love might stop heaven in its tracks.- Roger Ebert
A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is a wonderful fantasy movie about an English pilot who’s in love with an American (it was made to boost post-war Anglo-American relationships). It begins with their unique ‘falling’ in love scene (that can be seen here) – the dead pilot argues his case in Heaven to be allowed to return to life. The scenes on Earth are in Technicolor while Heaven is in black and white (which makes it more surreal). The last words are from a Walter Scott poem:
‘For love is heaven and heaven is love.’
June 15th, 2015
At last, a big picture is emerging in science as links have been found between the small and the large, between quantum physics and biology. The poster child of ‘quantum biology’ is the European robin. The bird uses the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate vast distances – but the field is 100 times weaker than a fridge magnet, so how does the robin detect it? It uses an very finely balanced system that reaches from the sub-atomic level to the biological. Here’s how it seems to work: a photon (‘particle’) of light enters the bird’s eye as it’s flying; the photon is absorbed by a protein molecule in the eye where it causes electrons to become ‘entangled’ (an electron state that’s sensitive to magnetic fields); this creates a chemical change in the protein molecule which sends a signal to the bird’s brain telling it which way to fly. This ‘magneto-reception’ occurs in many bird species (including chickens!), honey bees, dolphins, butterflies, sharks, lobsters and stingrays. This fascinating book tells the full story:
June 1st, 2015
More than any book I read as a child, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster, gave me a love of words– it puns them, pushes them, and plunders their meaning. It’s overflowing with inventiveness: the man who is short, tall, thin and fat, at the same time; an orchestra that plays colours; a city that disappears because nobody cares. And I love the illustrations by Jules Feiffer, especially this faceless timewaster, The Trivium, who has a message for all writers:
What could be more important than doing unimportant things? … There’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.
The story is about a child’s quest to overcome boredom. It’s told with imagination, wit and wisdom — what more could you want in a children’s book?
I had been an odd child: quiet, introverted and moody. Little was expected from me. Everyone left me alone to wander around inside my own head. When I grew up I still felt like that puzzled kid — my thoughts focused on him, and I began writing about his childhood. – Norton Juster
May 22nd, 2015
The best picture books are like a marriage: the text and illustrations support each other but have a strong life of their own. For very young children the plot should be focused and the pictures comforting. I Went Walking by Sue Williams is a perfect first book. The words are basic yet they incorporate repetition, questions, rhymes and humour. And the illustrations by Julie Vivas are sublime; leading the eye across the page in a dance of line, shape and colour. (See her gorgeous version of the Nativity too).
Max’s Bath by Barbro Lindgren is another delightful book for preschoolers. Max dumps his toys and his food in the tub and then tries to wash the dog with predictable results. Max is a classic ‘terrible two year old’ combining charm and mischief.
The picture book Seasons by French artist, Blexbolex is a unique, meditative book for young children that adults will relish for it’s design. It’s a tactile treat, printed in chunky hardback on rough paper, like old comic annuals. Each page has a single word and a subtle image to illustrate it. No garish colours here, just the quiet passing of seasons.
May 10th, 2015
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1940) is best loved for his exquisite fable The Little Prince, but he also wrote one of the greatest true adventures, Wind, Sand and Stars (1940), an exciting poetic, philosophical memoir. Saint-Exupéry’s flights in the 1920s and 30s took him across the Pyrenees, Andes, and the Sahara in a tiny plane that would sometimes conk-out “with a great rattle like the crash of crockery.” There are remarkable descriptions of flying among waterspouts in a typhoon and his survival after a crash in the desert (which inspired The Little Prince).
In the sky a thousand stars are magnetized, and I lie glued by the swing of the planet to the sand. A different weight brings me back to myself…Behind all seen things lies something vaster; everything is but a path, a portal or a window opening on something other than itself.
May 1st, 2015
- If you made a tower of ten million atoms… it would only be as high as a grain of sand.
- Picture a walnut sitting in the palm of your hand…if the walnut was an atom then your hand would have to be the size of the Earth.
- Look at yourself…seven octillion atoms [7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000] make your body.
Atoms are held together by electromagnetic force and they are mostly empty inside. You are made of atoms, so you are mostly empty space too. If you took away the space from everyone’s atoms you could fit the entire human race into a small Lego brick.
Atoms have smaller particles inside them. There’s a nucleus in the centre with a cloud of charged electrons around it. Look deeper inside and you’ll find even smaller particles with names such as gluons and muons, strange quarks and charm quarks. We live in a vast universe, but the universe is also inside us.
Photo: atoms of gold
April 25th, 2015
A great final sentence can offer hope, provoke a smile or trigger a shiver. At its best, it encapsulates the whole work. Where are these great last lines from?
“Hey, Boo.” (novel)
“Nobody’s perfect!” (movie)
“Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.” (short story)
“There is a crack in everything, it’s where the light gets in.” (song)
“All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe.” (poem)
Picture: Tenniel’s borogroves (Victorian Web).
April 10th, 2015
The first step towards being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm.– Dorothea Brande
The 1934 classic Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande, is a practical writing book which is also in tune with current neuroscience. Brande wrote that the writer’s unconscious mind should ‘flow freely and richly, bringing at demand all the treasures of memory’ – meanwhile the conscious mind does the hard work to ‘control, combine and discriminate’ words and sentences. Our unconscious is the source of our most original stories but it’s a reluctant creature, resisting the discipline that writing requires. Brande has some intriguing exercises designed to tap into the unconscious:
- Writing immediately after you wake up before any associations invade the mind.
- Writing at a prearranged time every day.
- Moments of meditation and mindfulness.
Brande also says, most importantly I think, that every writer has something unique to offer the world:
There is just one contribution which every one of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us.
March 29th, 2015
I’m inspired by the intricacy of our cells. Inside each cell are tiny molecules which are digesting, healing, sensing, supporting and moving us. Most of this is done by protein molecules – there are 60,000 different proteins in the body, such as enzymes (to carry out reactions) and hormones (send messages). We make proteins when we need them (eg. we build antibodies when we’re attacked by bacteria). In his wonderful book, Our Molecular Nature, David Goodsell writes:
We must be able to build each one exactly when and where it is needed, using only the materials available in the diet.
Why is this building process so accurate? Because each and every cell has a ‘library’ inside it called DNA which contains the precise instructions to build molecules. This ingenious library is used every second of your life. DNA has 6 billion bits of information; the equivalent number of books in a library.
Ultimately, a single cell, when paired with an appropriate mate, can build an entirely new human being, molecule by molecule. -David Goodsell
Using this blueprint, proteins are constructed in chains from smaller molecules called amino acids. Like letters of the alphabet, there are only 20 amino acids arranged to create thousands of novel proteins. Some proteins last a long time, others are disassembled after a few minutes. This allows the body to respond rapidly to any needs. The illustration (right) shows ubiquitin, a protein found throughout your body. Ubiquitin’s job is to attach to discarded proteins, tagging them for destruction.
David Goodsell is a scientist and molecular artist. View his art here and learn more about proteins at Molecule of the Day.
Illustration of Ubiquitin © David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute.
March 15th, 2015
A compelling, empowering book. – David Hill
My new book, Peace Warriors (Mākaro Press), tells the true stories of people who chose non-violent resistance in times of conflict. Young readers will discover that peace-making and people power can be more effective than military force.
Buy Peace Warriors
Radio interview about the book:
March 5th, 2015
The movie that forever changed my attitude to the future. – Michio Kaku
Forbidden Planet is a classic sci-fi movie about an alien society that has destroyed itself through technology and the scientist, Morbius, who discovers their secret. It shares elements with The Tempest except the movie uses science in place of the supernatural – the great Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim was that any advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The film’s science is plausible and the psychology even more so. I love this movie for the brilliant monster from the sub-conscious (designed by Disney animators); its set design; the first ever all-electronic score (by Bebe and Louis Barron); and the melodramatic script:
My evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it! – Morbius
February 22nd, 2015
Tony Juniper’s book What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? brilliantly proves that money really does grow on trees. Nature is the basis of our economic lives and is worth $100 trillion/year to the global economy. But we use up our yearly budget of resources in about 8 months and after that we destroy our natural capital. Juniper lists the huge benefits we get from healthy soil, plants, light, water and animals, and shows it makes economic sense to care for them. Pollinators, for example, are vital for our food supply: of the 100 most important food crop plants, 71 are pollinated by bees. He says the most likely causes of the bee decline are loss of habitat and pesticides (especially neonicotinoids):
Of all the unintended consequences that arise from how we treat nature, the loss of pollinators caused by pesticides is one of the more ironic. Chemical that were designed to protect agriculture are undermining its viability.
But he’s hopeful we can protect the bees, for example, by planting ‘bee roads’ of flowering plants between crops.
Everyone who has even a small garden can help with this.
February 15th, 2015
There is only one time that is important: Now. – Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s Twenty-Three Tales (1903) inspired me in my youth and I still love the wisdom of his folk tales. The classics are How Much Land Does a Man Need (very little, naturally); The Three Questions (Eg. What should I do with my time?); and A Grain as Big as a Hen’s Egg, an environmental metaphor that has only gained in power.
Photo: the only colour photo of Tolstoy (here aged 80), taken in 1908:
February 8th, 2015
One evening, a Sufi stopped by the roadside to read a book. He lit a bright lamp then walked some distance away and lit a small candle. He sat by the candle and read. People passing by asked, “Why don’t you read by the lamp?” The Sufi replied, “The bright lamp attracts all the moths. Here I can read my book in peace.” (Adapted from A Perfumed Scorpion by Idries Shah)
Blockbuster books attract many readers, but I’m attracted by books that are almost forgotten. Here are a few favourite hidden gems:
- Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche; and which Lewis called “far and away the best of my books.”
- Catastrophe, the strange stories of Dino Buzzati – a brilliant collection of surreal stories.
- Daydreamer by Ian McEwan – imaginative stories about a boy who daydreams to cope with growing up.
- The Importance of Living, by Lin Yutang – thoughts on everything by a Chinese writer and inventor
- Drift by William Mayne – survival story about a North American Indian girl and a white boy.
February 1st, 2015
A Bee in a Cathedral by Joel Levy is a fascinating book of science analogies and astonishing numbers. Suitable for all ages, only the physics section is a bit complex. A few of my favourites factoids:
- Every day 1 million meteoroids strike the Earth
- How far to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri? Travelling in a rocket at 250,000km/h, it would take you 18,000 years
- Most of the living cells in your body are less than a month old
- About 50 million neutrinos are passing through you now
- Every molecule in a glass of water is changing partners billions of times a second.
- How hard does your heart pump blood? Empty a bathtub in 15 minutes using only a teacup —repeat this without stopping for the rest of your life
- If an atom were blown up to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be no larger than a bee buzzing about in the centre.
January 25th, 2015
The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a fable about a pilot who crashes in the desert and meets a wise child. It’s one of the world’s most translated books (in 250 languages) and the top selling French book. It has the most intriguing sentence in all children’s literature:
What is essential is invisible to the eyes. (L’essential est invisble pour les yeux.)
What is ‘essential’? Is it truth, love, soul, uncertainty? These are the questions the story evokes. The opening chapter about following your dreams is brilliant. Saint-Exupéry was a pilot who also wrote great adventure books (eg. Wind, Sand and Stars ). His delicate watercolour illustrations are near perfect too.
January 18th, 2015
The things that you do should be things that you love; and the things that you love should be things you do. – Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury’s stories kept me reading in my teenage years and still inspire my writing today. I still have my first Corgi paperback of The Golden Apples of the Sun – the best 65c I ever spent (in 1970 that was an hour’s raspberry picking). Bradbury’s sci-fi-fantasy stories are scary, surprising, sentimental, and highly imaginative: a dinosaur falls in love with a lighthouse (The Fog Horn); an insect changes history (A Sound of Thunder); an astronaut pursues Jesus from planet to planet (The Man); the sun only shines once every 7 years (All Summer in a Day). He wrote short stories (my favourite collection is The Illustrated Man), novels, film (eg. Moby Dick) and TV.
Read more about Ray Bradbury:
If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.– Ray Bradbury
January 11th, 2015
Male bees (drones) have a decadent life inside the hive but it ends gruesomely. In spring and summer drones spend their days eating and sleeping – the female bees even clean up their droppings for them. In autumn the females push most of the drones out of the beehive to die in the cold air. Why have drones at all? To mate with a new queen, but it only happens once every few years. Several drones will mate with her and die in the act. Drones themselves have no father; they hatch from unfertilised eggs. It was once thought all bees came from virgin births, until in 1788 a blind Swiss naturalist, Francois Huber, proved that queens mated.
What big eyes the drones have; all the better to find the queen.
January 4th, 2015
The book has long oscillated between being accepted as harmless hilarity and being condemned as excessively horrifying- Humphrey Carpenter
Struwwelpeter (Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures) by Dr Heinrich Hoffman (1845) is a classic of gleefully gruesome cautionary rhymes about naughty children. Hoffman was a psychiatrist who founded an influential Frankfurt asylum and pioneered counselling as an alternative treatment to cold baths. The characters in Struwwelpeter were inspired by his child patients – he’d tell them stories and draw pictures to calm them down. Hoffman was looking for a book for his three year old son and could only find ‘stupid collections of pictures, and moralising stories’, so he created Struwwelpeter. It was one of the first picture books designed purely to please children – before 1850 children’s books were mainly religious and moral lessons with titles such as An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children. Read more about ‘Shock-Headed’ Peter here.
The Awful Warning carried to the point where Awe topples over into helpless laughter.– Harvey Darton
December 28th, 2014
Five years old, terrified on my first day at school. I sat on the hard mat and the teacher read Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr Seuss. I became so engrossed I didn’t notice my mother slip out. Horton the faithful elephant helped me get through that day.
Six years old, and absorbed in a cowboy adventure, Calico the Wonder Horse by Virginia Lee Burton. Gripped by this image of the Stewy Stinker crying in remorse for his wickedness – aware of my own naughtiness perhaps.
Seven years old, and Tintin was my role model for courage and integrity. The stories introduced me to sci-fi and humour, history and politics.
Eight years old, and The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster opened the world of word-play to me, an addiction that remains today.
Nine years old, and I devoured Willard Price books as pulp adventures with erupting volcanoes, balloon rides and killer anacondas. I wanted to write books as exciting.
Ten years old, on the ultimate journey with a small hero facing the monstrous Smaug. The Hobbit kindled my imagination more than any other book. It was, as Tolkien said,
‘an escape to a heightened reality- a world at once more vivid and intense.’
Here’s the 1966 version that I owned, with a cover drawing by Tolkien himself (link to all Hobbit covers).
December 21st, 2014
Honey bees have six (girl) powers to match any comic-book super hero. And like every super hero bees have one fatal weakness: when a bee stings you, it dies.
1. Super Flyers
Like Superman, bees are great flyers. A bee flies about 1000 km in her life. If she was human sized, that’d be like going five times around the planet. And she can carry 122 times her own weight.
2. Super Attractors
Like Magneto, honey bees use electro-magnetic forces. They have their own navigational GPS thanks to millions of magnetic crystals that sense the Earth’s magnetic field. Bees also have an electrical charge which attracts pollen.
3. Super Therms
Like Torch and Mr Freeze, bees cope with extreme temperatures. In the heat, air-conditioner bees fan their wings to cool the hive; and in the cold, bees huddle in a tight ball and shiver to keep warm.
4. Super Smarts
Like Professor X, bees are intelligent communicators. They are the only other creatures we know that use a symbolic language. The bee dance indicates direction and distance to flowers, and the quality of nectar. Bees can also tell time, measure, memorize, and solve problems.
5. Super Food
Like Wolverine, bees have healing powers. Honey is nutritious, lasts forever, and is a healer, killing bacteria and fungi. Manuka honey fights infection and heals burns. Bees use anti-bacterial propolis to keep their hives germ-free.
6. Super Transformers
Like Spiderman, bees can change their genetic structure. A queen bee is not born that way – any girl bee can become a queen. The worker bees prepare a royal baby by feeding it on royal jelly which triggers DNA change.
December 14th, 2014
Anyone can write but editing must be learned. P.G. Wodehouse was a relentless editor, polishing his manuscripts to perfection – Douglas Adams (The Salmon of Doubt) described Wodehouse’s unique system:
‘When he was writing a book he used to pin pages in undulating waves around the wall. Pages he thought were working well would be pinned high, and those that still needed work would be lower down the wall.’
The aim was to get the whole story up to the ceiling level. Here are 3 books that have helped me learn to edit:
Self Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King teaches the mechanics of style, dialogue, point of view, ‘show not tell’, character, beats.
The Art of Writing by John Gardner is a more stringent book which talks about maintaining the ‘dream’ of the story – when the writing draws attention to itself (in a bad way) then the dream is broken for the reader.
Go over and over it…refusing to let anything stay if it looks awkward, phony, or forced.– John Gardner
On Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (1934) explores the idea that a writer is both artist and self-critic – a writer begins with the unconscious mind ‘bringing at demand all the treasures of memory’; but then the conscious mind ‘must control, combine and discriminate’ (that’s editing in a nutshell).
The writer must be as God in his universe — present everywhere and visible nowhere. -Flaubert
December 6th, 2014
There is great exuberance in the Moomins, and a delightful battyness. – Jeanette Winterson
The Moomin comic strips by Tove Jansson (originally from the 1950s) are reprinted in five magnificent hardback volumes. The comics are a lovely balance of humour and optimistism. The free-spirited Moomins live in the moment and these comics are still relevant, commenting on consumerism, the environment and work. For example, in The Conscientious Moomins, an officer of the League of Duty admonishes Moominpappa for being a drop-out; but when Moominpappa joins the establishment, all the pleasure goes out of his life, and he returns to his old philosophy of
‘Live in peace, plant potatoes and dream!’
November 30th, 2014
Fiction should be both canny and uncanny. – Flannery O’Connor
The best short story I’ve ever read is Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find – it certainly has the most powerful ending. Her stories can be dark, her characters grotesque, but there’s always a redemptive thread and a tough spirituality that’s never preachy. O’Connor honed her writing to near perfection despite the pain of lupus which killed her at the age of 39. Here are some of her incisive thoughts about the writing process from her collection of essays and lectures, Mystery and Manners:
If you want to write well and live well at the same time, you’d better arrange to inherit money.
When I sit down to write, a monstrous reader looms up who sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.’
Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting dusty, then you shouldn’t write fiction.
There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the fiction writer can hardly do without and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting to the point at once.
As grace and nature have been separated, so imagination and reason have been separated, and this always means an end to art. The artist uses his reason to discover an answering reason in everything he sees.
The writer has to judge himself with a stranger’s eye and a stranger’s severity.
November 23rd, 2014
The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher is a classic picture book that almost didn’t make it. It took Molly Bang years to create and it was repeatedly rejected by publishers – they said it was ‘peculiar-looking’ and that ‘children won’t relate to an old woman as a protagonist’. The manuscript sat in a drawer for years, was re-worked and finally published to some critical reviews, writes Molly Bang: ‘The New York Times that said that the weird-looking characters and flashy colors were an indication that I was part of the drug culture and the detailed pictures told no real story but were merely an excuse to show off.’ Then it won a Caldecott award and everything changed. Why? It’s a one-of-a-kind, off-the-wall book, and very creepy! I love the tiny fungi that grow where the Strawberry Snatcher has trod.
November 16th, 2014
It’s the most important relationship on Earth – everything in Nature depends on pollinators and flowers getting together.
Pollination is ‘a love story that feeds the Earth.’ – Louie Schwartzberg.
For a flower to make fruit and seeds, its pollen (male) must get to an egg (female), usually in another flower – and bees do 80% of the moving. The result is a cornucopia of foods from cherries to cashews, courgettes to coffee. Our relationship with the pollinators is equally vital so let’s provide bees with a variety of flowers, clean water and spray-free gardens.
Scenes from Louie Schwatzberg’s dazzling movie, Wings Of Life:
November 9th, 2014
Draw to live; live to draw –Wanda G’ag
This is Wanda G’ag (it rhymes with blog) one of the finest children’s book illustrators. Her masterpiece is Millions of Cats (1928) the story of a lonely old couple who attract ‘millions and billions and trillions of cats‘. The pictures roll like waves across the pages; clouds, trees, hills and cats all swept along in the flow of the story. The black and white gives it that slightly unsettling folktale vibe. As a child I loved the army of cats drinking a pond in seconds, and the final catastrophic catscrap. Try to find her bizarre Nothing At All too, about an invisible dog.
Here’s G’ag’s biography and one of her lithographs :
November 1st, 2014
I’m writing a sci-fi novel and falling into two traps: Infodump and Unobtainium.
Infodump is a when a character gives a mini lecture — telling instead of showing — such as in reply to “Tell me, Professor, how does your invention work?” Infodump can be reduced by editing out any techno-babble, and by using characters to give brief explanations only when plot demands it to move forward.
Unobtainium is a plot device such as an alien substance or a future technology. Most sci-fi has these but too often they’re used by writers to remove a plot hole; as in ‘Lucky I brought my sonic screwdriver to do this impossible task.’ (A version of: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’– Arthur C Clarke). Possible solutions are to make your ‘Unobtainium’ central to the plot (eg. give it a snappy back-story), or reduce it to a playful bit of science.
October 26th, 2014
Thousands of unarmed students in Hong Kong are currently standing up for democracy by taking to the streets. It’s often students who lead the way in peaceful protest movements:
- 1943: The White Rose group were university students in Munich who distibuted thousands of leaflets exposing the Nazis’ crimes and encouraging people to resist. They were executed.
- 1957: The Little Rock Nine were high school students in America who broke through the race barrier by enrolling in the local all-white high school despite threatening mobs.
- 1986-89: University students in China protested to demand more freedom, culminating in Tiananmen Square with half a million Chinese citizens. The government crushed the event.
- 1988: University students in Burma led massive street marches against the military rulers. The army killed hundreds but Burma eventually got free elections.
- 2000: Students in Serbia led a non-violent protest to help oust a corrupt government.
October 18th, 2014
It was 1963, and I was terrified on my first day at school (primary!). I sat on the hard grey mat and the teacher read Horton Hatches the Egg to the class. I became so engrossed I didn’t even notice my mother slip out. That loyal elephant helped me get through that watershed day without too many waterworks. My other favourite Seuss characters were the Pale Green Pants and the Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz. Seuss pushed the English language to the limit. Ever wonder why Green Eggs and Ham is so repetitive? Seuss only had a 50 word vocabulary list to work with, but he created a classic. By the way writers, his first book was rejected 27 times.