British Society for Literature and Science Conference 2010

And I mean the book is staring at me!

The annual Conference of the British Society for Literature and Science will be held at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle, 8-10 April 2010.

You can read more about the conference here, and note the registration deadline of 15th March.

One highlight of the conference will be a public conversation between myself and novelist Ann Lingard, who will talk about ‘Putting Science into Fiction.’

She has a number of novels to her name, including Seaside Pleasures, the plot of which ties to the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse.

I’m really looking forward to meeting Ann this week, when she talks in Oxford on her new novel, The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes. The book is on my table, staring at me, and I can’t wait to read it. The event is at 7:30 pm and I believe tickets are still available.

Ann used to be a scientist and is the founder of SciTalk, which helps writers – especially fiction-writers – to find out more about modern science and to visit and talk to scientists. A writer after my own heart!

Caldbeck, Grasmere, & The Wordsworth Trust

Dani and I spent a delightful Valentine’s weekend surrounded by stunning views in the Lake District. We took the Sleeper Train to Carlisle, where Dani’s friend Dave generously picked us up at 5am to drive us to his home in Caldbeck, where everyone went back to sleep for a few hours. Then, Dave and his wife led us on a 5 mile ‘walk’ up Ullock Pike. The driving sleet and ‘mild’ (30-40mph) winds were a bit of a shock but certainly drove the sleep-deprivation-cobwebs away!

By the lake shore in Keswick.

The plan was to carry on up Skiddaw, but the weather closed in as we reached the top of Ullock, and they decided to be kind to me. The views in the Lake District are phenomenal, except when the weather is poor, and that is frequent. I think we were pretty fortunate with the weather on our trip– a bit of sun, a bit of snow, a bit of rain, but for February, not too cold.

We had a good lunch and a mini-tour of Keswick (it’s too small for anything else!) and then relaxed back at Dave and Claire’s, enjoying a crackling fire, the company of our hosts and their three gregarious children, and a hearty dinner.

Saturday Dave gave us a lift to Grasmere, former home of William and Dorothy Wordsworth and now the Wordsworth Trust. It’s a delightful, tiny village– you can walk from the Swan Inn at one end, through town and to the Trust in about 15 minutes. We stayed at Grasmere Buthyarlp (‘Butterlip’) Howe.

At the Trust, Andrew Forster, Literature Officer and a fellow Flambard Press poet, met us and we had a really interesting tour by one of the delightful interns, through Dove Cottage where Wordsworth used to live (usually with about 10 other people, from friends to family).

Cumbrian light shining on the poet's heads.

Then, Andrew showed us around the reading room in the new Jerwood Centre, and we had a peek at some of the treasures in the Collection, including a first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Before the event, Andrew hosted lunch at the Trust’s on-site restaurant, Villa Colombina, with Flambard’s editor, Will Mackie, poet Brian Johnstone, the editor of Arc Publications Tony Ward, and other associated friends and colleagues.

We carried on to the Reading Room, where Andrew introduced, to an audience of about fifteen people, the final event in the Inpress Series, ‘Resolution and Independence.’ Will talked about the history of Flambard Press, which was particularly interesting as I had not heard a lot of it before, and then I read from Darwin’s Microscope.

Dear Wordsworth, may I please live here?

Then Tony spoke about Arc, and Brian read from his collection, The Book of Belongings. Tony himself began Arc 40 years ago, so it has a long and fascinating–and entertaining!–history. Brian has been organizing the famous Stanza Poetry Festival in Scotland for 30 years, so he too has much experience in the literary world. It was really interesting to meet them both.

Dani and I met up with Will later for dinner, and stumbled upon some live music at a local pub that turned out to be really enjoyable.

The next day we headed out early to climb ‘the Lion and the Lamb,’ as locals call it, or ‘Helm Crag.’ We made it back pretty early– most walkers were heading out as we headed in– but were glad, as we had some brilliant views for about an hour before the clouds moved in and the rain/snow began. (Whether it was rain or snow depended, of course, on how high up you were.) I completed the walk by going off the track slightly and stepping into a bog– scary for a second! You sink right in and don’t know how deep you’re going to fall. Dani pulled me out. It was all very romantic–and on Valentine’s day, too.

On the panel with Brian, Will and Tony.

We enjoyed a rather massive lunch at a local tea shop, and then read until it was time to enjoy a remarkable 4-course dinner at the Grasmere Hotel. One of the things I love about hillwalking is that eating like this really is justifiable.

I love the hillwalking itself, too, of course– at least when I’m not wondering what the hell I’m doing on a windy peak with ice blowing in my face and why exactly Brits call it ‘walking’ when it’s really mountaineering and maybe I need crampons because it’s getting awfully icy and I’m not going to tell my mom about what I’m doing until after and why in God’s name do people like doing this??? But most of the time, I love it.

As a final note, we have fallen in love with Grasmere Gingerbread. At first bite, it was rather a ‘hmm, I’m not sure if I like this,’ surprise. Harder and chewier than I expected, but after a moment’s consideration, absolutely delicious. I’m afraid we didn’t buy enough!

At the top of the Lion (or the Lamb?)
Dani being all mountaineer-y.
Chatting with Andrew after the event.
Excited to find myself in the bus stop.
Zooming in...
It's me!

Linnean Society Fellowship

Linnean Society Fellowship certificate

It is a great pleasure to confirm my election as a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London.

I have not yet been inducted, but will be at one of the upcoming meetings of the Society.

Since speaking at the Linnean Society on 5th November 2009, and being heartily welcomed into the delightful social and intellectual atmosphere of the LinSoc’s pre-lecture teas and post-lecture wine receptions, I have done my best to attend other lectures at Burlington House.

The talk on 21st January 2010, on the Scottish Beaver Trials, was not only memorable for the interesting information regarding the Trials, but because my name, among a number of others, was up for election, and most interestingly, I had a delightful chat with a lady whom I was certain I had met before.

I recognized her at the pre-talk tea reception and wanted to speak to her but didn’t have the opportunity, so was delighted when she happened to sit beside me as people settled for the talk.

LinSoc badge.

‘Have we met before? You look so familiar,’ I said, ‘maybe we’ve spoken here before?’

The lady wasn’t sure if we’d met before either, but was very friendly and introduced herself– ‘I’m Janet Browne.’

Oh! The foremost biographer of Charles Darwin. Right.

We decided that either we had met before, quite possibly at the Cambridge Darwin Festival in the summer of 2009, or that I simply recognized her because, well…she’s a very recognizable person when you’ve been studying Darwin!

Then she said she recognized my name in association with my activities at Cambridge! That was indeed a surprise and a pleasure.

As we settled in to hear the talk, she nudged me and pointed up at the original, now restored portrait of Darwin, and the one of Wallace beside him, hanging just on the wall above us.

‘There are our guys,’ she said.

Wordsworth Trust event

Dove Cottage at the Wordsworth Trust.

The Wordsworth Trust and Inpress Books are hosting a series of events, ‘resolution and independence,’ about independent publishing.

Flambard Press books are distributed under the Inpress Books banner.

So I’m heading up to the Lake District, and on Saturday my Editor Will Mackie will speak about Flambard Press, and I will read from Darwin’s Microscope.

Then, Tony Ward of Arc Publications will present Brian Johnstone, who will read from his new collection, The Book of Belongings.

It’s an honour to be invited to read at this event, and a pleasure to head up to Dove Cottage for the first time.

Whipple Event: ‘A Herschel Trio’ Evening

Michael Hoskin introducing the Herschel history.

The Herschel evening at the Whipple Museum was an enormous success, with over fifty guests in attendance. This included some of William and Caroline’s descendants: the current head of the Herschel household, John Herschel-Shorland, his son William, and his daughter Amanda. So, as Melanie keenly put it, our ‘Herschel Trio’ event had a ‘Herschel trio’ in the audience!   

One of the two groups of musicians warming up for the concerto.

The renowned Herschel scholar, Michael Hoskin, started off the evening with an engaging overview of William and Caroline’s work, explaining why he finds William Herschel the most impressive astronomer, possibly ever, for making groundbreaking progress in all three traditional strands of astronomy–observational astronomy, instrument building (namely telescopes,) and theoretical astronomy.   

An additional honour to having Professor Hoskin speak at the Whipple is his status as the first Director of the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, and he reminisced on teaching lectures in the very room we were sitting in, now the Museum’s main gallery. Professor Hoskin’s penultimate book on the Herschel family is due out in 2011.   

Derek, who runs the Whipple’s Science of Musical Sound activities, introduced the musicians and spoke on William as a composer. The first piece played was composed by William at the age of only 21. 

 It was a very special treat for us all to hear the compositions played, which is very rare indeed. The Herschel family were especially pleased to hear the music, and the current William Herschel was very encouraging to hear about my work-in-progress, kindly saying that I’m ‘filling in the gaps with creativity.’ I am certainly trying to do so!

Reading from 'Caroline' manuscript.

The fifty-strong audience then relaxed for an Oboe Concerto, drifting back to the days when socialites flocked to Bath’s Octagon Chapel, where William played and conducted, and Caroline sang. These were the days when King George’s madness began to run rampant, and little Jane Austen frolicked along the limestone cobbles of the city. 

Next, I read excerpts from my novel-in-progress, Caroline. One scene has William and Caroline strolling with their friend towards the recently designed Crescent, one of the poshest areas of Bath, where they find some schoolchildren playing at making a ‘living orrery’ in a field. William tries to correct their orbits and meteoric routes, to no avail. Another scene has Caroline swept away in the overwhelmingly expensive social activities in London with the rich widow, Mrs. Celia Colebrook. 

Derek Scurll introducing the music.

 Two trio sonatas followed, and then guests had time to look at some of the museum collections in the main gallery, speak with the participants, and leave their comments and compliments regarding the evening.
Thank you to Derek and Melanie for arranging such an excellent event, and to Melanie for being our photographer!