Monday, 15 September 2008

Observing the Big Bang and Responsibility to Awe

So the epicentre of an almighty cosmic catastrophe did not occur in Switzerland. Whizzing particles were busy saying cheese for the camera (or should that be Swiss cheese as a friend pointed out to me) and no black hole or the entrance to another parallel universe or an unscreened episode of Buffy, opened.

It’s always the way when you are observing something nothing spectacular ever happens, the moment you turn your back of course all hell may make loose. I can’t begin to count the number of fabulous photographs I could have taken seconds after I stopped looking through the viewfinder. The one at the top just failed to catch a spectacular leap out of the water by a whale. I have several photographs of a dustbin just as a skunk has left, I even have a rowing eight on the Cam seconds before it crashed into a barge at a rate of knots. But then the Swiss can be relied upon for 24 hour surveillance (why else would billionaires keep their money there) and the boffins are too shrewd to let anything get past them. You don’t spend years and millions of Euros building something whose sole purpose is to hurl things together then step outside for a quick fag or shuffle off to the coffee machine at 3 am and miss it all. I enjoy physics although I don’t understand it at any level other than the most basic but then you don’t have to read a single note of music to enjoy a symphony.
All the hoo-ha about Cern and the observation of the big bang a nano second after made me revisit a wonderful collection of poetry by Rebecca Elson called ‘A Responsibility to Awe’ (published by Carcanet). I knew Rebecca slightly as we attended a poetry workshop together for a while in Cambridge. She was an extraordinary woman, an astronomer who had worked on the Hubble Telescope project, specialised in looking for Dark Matter and who wrote some of the most wonderful poetry about her science and sadly later her diagnosis of cancer. She died at only 39 and I am sure if not for the cancer she would have gone on to be a major figure in the world of astronomy and poetry. The collection was lovingly put together after her death by her husband and her friend and fellow poet Anne Berkeley, who I know spent countless hours pouring over Rebecca’s notebooks, diaries and essays to produce the book which not only contains her poems but extracts from her notebooks and an essay about how she came to be a scientist. If you are at all interested in science and poetry this book repays any time spent reading it. Below are a couple of her poems about astronomy to wet your appetite.

Girl with a Balloon
(Most of the helium in the universe was created in the Big Bang)

From this, the universe
In its industrial age,
With all the stars lit up
Roaring, banging, spitting,
Their black ash settling
Into every form of life,

You might look back with longing
To the weightlessness, the elemental,
Of the early years.

As leaning out the window
You might see a child
Going down the road,
A red balloon,
A little bit of pure Big Bang,
Bobbing at the end of her string.

The Last Animists

They say we have woken
From a long night of magic,
Of cravings,
Fire for fire, earth for earth.
A wind springs up.
The birds stir in the dovecotes.
It is so clear in this cold light
That the firmament turns without music,
That when the stars forge
The atoms of our being
No smith sweats in labour.

Day dawns,
The chill of reason seeps
Into the bones of matter
But matter is unknowing.
Mathematics sinks its perfect teeth
Into the flesh of space
But space is unfeeling.

We say the dreams of night
Are within us
As blood within flesh
As spirit within substance
As the oneness of things
As from a dust of pigeons
The white light of wings.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Anxiety Bloat, Whitesnake and Tea and Cake in the Biker's Tent.

The novel manuscript is with the agent, the poetry collection is with the publisher and so I wait. I feel like a pregnant woman waiting to be told the results of the scan. Come to think of it my stomach seems to be expanding, this may be a kind of anxiety bloat or due to the fact that I am eating my way through the freezer in a fit of economy and ‘waste not want not’ admonitions in my head from endless generations of thrifty northern women from which I descend. I have discovered unlabelled, undated plastic bags lurking at the back; chocolate sauce or that rich gravy. Food, once frozen takes on a strange sculptural form, especially sloppier food items which mould themselves to fit the space available and tend to take on a darker hue. One bag, seemed to take on the shape of Henry Kissenger’s head. It contained what I thought was raspberry gloop made in a fit of Nigella envy last summer, it turned out to be carrot soup, once it thawed.

Talking of feeling pregnant yesterday was the BOO’s (Beloved Only Offspring) birthday. I phoned her on the mobile. Where are you? I enquire as I can hear a lot of noise in the background. “At a Bikers Rock festival”, she replies. ”It’s tipping it down, my tent is now a waterlogged paddling pool and I have had to buy a pair of surplus army boots as my shoes are leaking.” We are of course talking motor-bikes here not push bikes. A large muddy field full of bikers arriving to enjoy the likes of a WhiteSnake tribute band called Snakebite and other heavy metal delights sounds like a good way to celebrate your birthday. The Boo tells me that they have found a fantastic tent being run by the Christian Bikers Association where tea and cake are really cheap. She seems to think that potential double pneumonia and tea and biscuits from the Biker God Squad with someone belting the hell out of a drum kit in the background is a good way to spend a birthday and it probably is if you’re in your twentiesand don't feel the need for hygenic toilet facilities,a comfy chair and the promise of a decaff skinny cappacino now and then.I am proud that I refrained from asking if she was wearing a vest but I couldn't stop myself asking if she had a decent sleeping bag. "I should have but it hasn't arrived yet." she replied cryptically which sounded rather ominous.

I have just watched the Whitesnake link through. I had completely forgotten all that era of ‘crotch rock’; boys in tight leather and flowing locks playing ‘air guitar’ with a real guitar photo-shopped in and lots of women in the videos tossing their hair about too, whilst always scantily clad. Totally unpolitically correct, feminism wise almost mysoginistic.That brand of Heavy Metal was always more about shiny platinum discs than heavy metal music of course. Am I being strangely nostalgic for those unreconstructed early male metal bands like, AC/DC, Jeff Beck, Deep Purple, Hawkwind, Led Zepplin, Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy, Uriah Heep. But then Ossie went onto reality TV shows and Alice Cooper advertises Staples and appeared with the Muppets; so slip all icons into the arms of necessity to pay the bills. On the day I gave birth to my daughter Tainted Love was at Number One, swiftly followed by Prince Charming with Adam Ant looking rather like a youthful de-toxed version of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.Come to think of it the Rolling Stone, raddled icon, Keith Richards, turned up in that as Johnny Depp’s dad. How have the mighty fallen and the hell raisers of yesteryear grown mellow like old cheese. If Amy Winehouse was a man would we just nod and accept that the icons of the media industry was ever thus and that in twenty years time she will be advertising hairspray on TV? Female stars seem to have less slack cut as boozing drug-riddled hell raisers; less hope of them slipping into becoming acceptable shuffling, monosyllabic elder statesmen of what rock and roll is all about.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Boxers, Yapping Dogs and the Floating Dog Lovers Vote in the American Presidential Election

Autumn feels as if it is starting to arrive with that particular smell of new pencil cases, vests and in the Fens a slight ‘je ne sais quoi’ on the breeze coming in from the Urals. Having spent nearly all of August with my head in front of a computer screen working on the novel (definite article) and the poetry collection (another very definite article) I am now attuned to the view from the window next to my computer desk and can spot all those minute changes, even the urban grass verges with their weekly tide of wheelie bins signal that summer has washed by. The rose bush in next door but one’s garden look like a lanky older woman trying to maintain a gesture towards youth by a slight smear of red lipstick.Nearly all the leaves have dropped, succombing to time and gravity but the odd bloom hangs on doggedly, much like myself.

I spent Saturday at an informal poetry workshop in a garden. Some exercises to get the juices flowing and much food. I managed to squeeze out a few drops of work I could perhaps use at some point from, what felt like, my desiccated brain. I was happy to be in the company of two dogs, resident in the house; a very solid black Labrador and a quietly content cocker spaniel. I miss dogs, being out at work all day I feel it is unfair to have a dog but in my childhood and teenage years I was never without a dog in the house. The first I recall was
a far from stupid boxer who took me from two years old to fourteen years old. She was the exception to the rule that boxers are basically friendly but very stupid. She was a smart dog; unfortunately she took her role of surrogate nanny to me very seriously, someone must have read her Peter Pan as a puppy and she took her template from the Darling’s dog. We would play together in a tiny garden but should I venture towards the gate to go out onto the road she would firmly stop me by either literally hanging onto any item of my clothing she could get her teeth into and pulling me back or sitting at the gateway and head butting me back into the garden. As I grew older and was allowed out of the gate on my own she found this very worrying and would fret at the gate until I returned. I could never take her for a walk on my own even as a teenager; we would get as far as the gate and she would sit down and refuse to budge giving me a very firm stare as if I was being caught in an act of unbelievably stupidity. She would sit at the door awaiting my return from school unerringly at the right time, even when we had half day holidays from school she would sense a change of timings and be at the door at the new return time. This was a dog of magnificent intelligence and empathy.

The Dalmatian that followed was barking mad, literally; she was also an escape artist of Houdini type ability. Whilst I was at school my mother spent hours wandering the neighbourhood rattling a tin of doggy chocs to try and locate her. She was returned to us from far and wide, kind people reading her address on the collar and delivering her back. This was her forte, escaping, running for miles, acquiring new and admiring friends who would feed her, pet her generally celebrate her adventure and return her back to the arms of her family who were, puzzlingly to her, a mixture of angry, relieved and joyous. The Dalmatian came into our lives at the same time as my mother’s menopause and the two did not mix. The daily stress of her escapes lead her to give the dog away to a family that had two rumbustuous young boys who were also always escaping and getting into trouble. This was a match made in heaven. The boys and the dog bonded so well that on her death many years later two grief stricken grown men insisted that she be placed in a very expensive doggy grave at the local pet cemetery.

After the Dalmatian my mother decided to downsize to two pugs. I had virtually left home by the pug era but I remember them as loud, yapping to a frenzy when anyone came to the door, true lap dogs and, I say this grudgingly, as I am not a fan of small dogs, full of character. They wheezed and snorted their way through life with heads that seemed to be permanently cocked on one side, like victims of severe whiplash. They were in a car accident once, my mother driving into a bread van or vice versa depending on which version you listened to. They refused to abandon their roll as guardians of the back seat of the car and had to be removed eventually very gingerly by a policeman who threw a coat over them. They didn’t stop yapping until placed in the ambulance with my slightly dazed mother where they promptly sat on her lap and refused to budge. They had to be given a ride to the hospital with her (very much against the rules) until my father arrived to collect them and my mother, whereupon both mother and dogs lapsed into acquiescent relieved silence in the presence of the alpha male of the pack.

I discovered a recent article that cited the results of a poll that 42% of pet owners favoured presidential McCain and only 37% favoured Obama. Amongst dog owners the margin is even bigger. McCain did release pictures of himself in hunting mode with gun and dog, thus targeting the gun lobby and the dog owners in one fell swoop. The fact that Obama is without any kind of pet, apart from his running mate, Joe Biden, who has been likened to an attack dog, may not help his cause. If McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin turns out to own cats, dogs goldfish and budgies there may be many a democratic vote lost to the animal lovers demographic. However her strong fight as Governor of Alaska to try and stop Polar bears being listed as an endangered species as this would effect gas and oil exploration may count against her. Cuddly endangered polar bear cub versus a family pet. This may be a green crusty eco warrior with small dogs on pieces of rope group versus owners of spoilt poodles, man hunting bloodhounds and property protecting Dobermans.It is unlikely that the former would have voted Republican anyway and the latter dog owners are probably already entrenched in the Republican camp. It's the floating dog-owning voters that need rounding up into the Democrat fold. Obama has stated he intends to get a dog at some point; this may be too little too late to grab that floating dog-owner voter.

Harry Truman a famous presidential dog owner once pointed out that the only way to have a friend in Washington was to have a dog. Of course Harry Truman agreed to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hitler also liked dogs, being deeply fond of his Alsatian dog Blondie; dog ownership is therefore no indication of a deep love of humanity in general or an ability to lead with compassion. Perhaps Barack is relying on Biden to be faithful unto death and also the American electorate to have some common sense. Hopefully both will prove to be true but I am not holding my breath. Maybe Sarah Palin will be revealed as having agreed to lost dogs in Alaskan dog pounds being put to sleep, cue for photo opportunity of dog with soulful eyes staring down the camera lens; then those floating voters may not be lost to the Democrats after all.