Friday, 29 June 2007

Following the railroad in Cuban Granma province

Following the railroad in Cuban Granma province
Originally uploaded by

I was delighted to see today on Flickr that someone favourited this photo. My husband David snapped this from a Viazul tourist bus as we crossed Cuba. He kindly took lots of photos of what you see of Cuba as you cross from West to East; Havana to Santiago de Cuba. This was so that when I came to write the relevant sections of Project Jaguar, I would be able to recall the images and atmosphere of this country.

Maybe I was asleep or watching the movie because I didn't actually witness this scene myself so I'm even more grateful that he caught it. This captures the essence of how tough it is for Cubans to travel around in Cuba. Most people in Havana that we spoke to had never been to the other side of the island. And people in Santiago would tell us, "I went to Havana once, about twenty years ago." (It's not like in the UK where people are too busy going to Mallorca to go to London - they can't go anywhere - it costs too much!)

Few people own a car, those who do tend to own cars that are too clapped out to get far without breaking down and of course there's nothing like the RAC if you do. On the major roads you find small crowds of hitchhikers gathered under bridges, despondently waving money bills at passing private cars but mainly goods lorries. There's no such thing as a free ride.

These hitchhikers aren't game young students; ther are people of all ages, often with small children in tow.

I wonder where this woman in the photo is going with her two little ones. Waiting for a freight train to give her a lift? I wonder how long it took to get there.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Top Ten Superhero Films Part 2

It turns out that I'm an idiot who can't count. I forgot one key superhero movie which is awesome, easily in the top 5, and when I looked at the other 4, none could in all good conscience be thrown out in favour of Spiderman 3, which I loved even if everyone says it's bad.

The one I forgot is now at number 4. I think it's that good.

5. X2
You know the X-Men franchise takes itself pretty seriously - at least this far in its run - from the fact that it opens in Auschwitz. Ooer, dark; Frank Miller, Alan Moore territory here we come. After that it comes together very nicely as one of only 2 successful multi-protag superhero movies. A raft of terrific actors have a great time with a good screenplay.

4. The Incredibles
I remember watching this at the cinema with my daughters and being impressed at a film which could hugely entertain a pre-school child, a teen and an adult. The story structure is terrific, the pace never lets up, the humour sections are genuinely funny and not just saddo cheese-fests (I particularly loved the costume fitting). It's not easy to write a great story that has pace, humour, always with an eye on the video game opportunity. I think The Incredibles really pulls it off. My only teentsy concern is the self-referential nature of the movie, with its commentary on the nature and perception a world in which superheroes exist. It seemed a very original twist on the superhero mythology when Alan Moore did it in 'Watchmen', but now seems a bit passe. Then again most people haven't read 'Watchmen'.

3. Spiderman
I love Tobey Maquire and have always loved Peter Parker. Green Goblin was a great villain to pick for the Spidey movie. Peter's growing delight with his powers and the way that, despite being a superhero he only slowly dispels his nerdy-boy persona, are the stand-out bits for me. Yes, the swinging is all very good too, love the swinging and the wall-crawling.Everyone in this movie is just great, but Jonah Jameson is a special delight.

2. Superman II
I almost put this top. It's not top of anyone else's list, as far as I know, which makes me think; where were you people in 1980? Don't you realise the significance to those of us who were lovelorn teens, of the moment when Clark tells Lois that he's Superman? Their first kiss is up there with Han Solo's kiss with Princess Leia as one of the defining movie smooches for people my age! We also get to learn more about Supe's homeworld, see the camp wonderfulness of the exiled Kryptonians and actually worry that Superman may not win the day. The end somewhat spoils it, with Clark being allowed to get his powers again. I see that it's called for, but basically, it's a deus ex machina.

1. Spiderman II
It's unusual for a sequel to be better than the first, but not uncommon in Superhero films. Why? Because the first superhero film necessarily serves up the Origin Story. We all know more or less what such a story will give us. Ordinary guy becomes extraordinary and finds that he must use his extraordinariness to help people. Big Baddie threatens the world, superhero to the rescue, problem solved. Not very interesting, so far. The surprises, threats and complications really arise in stories further along the line. Jaded superhero; superhero tempted to evil; superhero in love, etc. Spiderman II goes for an early foray into Jaded Superhero. It's probably not a bad time for that story. You can't really roll that one out again until the superhero is supposedly 'past it', as in "The Dark Knight Returns". Doc Ock is great, ripping chunks out of walls and hurling them at people. So many classic moments of the genre, so well executed.

Didn't make the list:
Daredevil - one of my greater movie disappointments. How was this not wonderful? Why didn't they get Frank Miller to write it? What was with the stupid, pumping rock soundtrack? Why was Matt Murdoch not blond??? I love MM but Daredevil was baaad, and not in the good way.

Elektra - not as dreadful as people say, actually. Better than Daredevil. But again...why didn't Frank Miller write? Why didn't they at least use one of his Elektra stories?

Constantine - (based on Hellblazer) really good. Would put it at twelve.

Spidey 3 - cos I can't count, but I'd put it at 7 probably, in a rejig.

Superhero Movies I'd Like To See:
The Spirit, Watchmen, a good Daredevil movie, Groo the Wanderer, The Trouble With Girls. Technically neither The Spirit, Groo nor Lester Girls have superpowers. But then neither does Batman, so fair is fair.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Top Ten Sweeties

Here's an addictive Website for sweetie-lovers. A Quarter of These. You can order all your old favourites, and sweets they didn't have round your way but you wished they did. Ten flavours of chewy bonbons; TEN! This shop must be one of the best places in the world!
I lost quite a bit of weight (like 7 kilos) on the vegan diet, but if I'm not careful it's all going to pile right back on with a new habit I've acquired, namely, treating myself to a sweetie or two (or five) as I write.

Sugar is wildly addictive; once your system is used to that early morning sugar rush (I write first thing), you get to looking forward to it. I've started to find myself musing about sweets of old, found myself toying with the idea of going to Thorntons in town or Hamiltons in Burford to get a fix of premium sweeties.

You start with something recreational and 'harmless' like a Bassetts strawberry bon-bon and before long you need a handmade violet cream, Soor Plooms or some Extremely Chocolately Thorntons Special Toffee. You have to go further for your fix, make special trips.

The thing is, I just can't afford the calories. I snagged a fabulous size 12 Diane Von Fustenberg wrap dress on ebay this morning (very good price!) and I'll be damned if I can't look good in it this summer.

So the bag of M&S Devon Toffees on my desk will have to be the last for a long time.

In the meantime, I can bypass the craving by thinking about sweeties and which are my Top Ten.

10. Sherbert Lemons
Sharp, tangy taste but there's a price to be paid in the wounds you get to the roof of the mouth. Good for those with vampiric tendences who quite enjoy the taste of blood.

9. Cream Soda Sherbert
Pink and creamy, vanilla and icing sugar combined with citric acid, it's not half bad. Great for dippin', ideally a strawberry lollipop.

8. Chupa Chups
It's not all about the nostalgia, and not all the best sweeties are British. These Spanish lollipops are the best! So many yummy flavours. When the Spice Girls broke up, Sainsbury's sold off buckets of Spice Girl Chupa Chups for a fiver. I bought them for my office and that whole summer long, everyone sucked Chupas. I love them all but the cherry flavour just wins.

7. Mazapan
Another foreign sweetie - Mexican this time. It's like halva but made from peanuts; a little cake of compressed, powdered roast peanuts and sugar. de la Rosa brand are ubiquitous but I prefer the other kind...can't remember the name.

6. Cajeta
A Mexican milk caramel in the style of 'dulce de leche' or 'manjar' but made from goat's milk. It is sweeter, stickier, pours and has a distinctive flavour. Amazing over hot cakes (fluffy American pancakes). From a town in Queretaro state called Celaya, which I once visited and found a shop which sold ONLY cajeta! Walls stacked high with shelves just crammed with shiny bottles of the lovely caramel syrup. My favourite flavour is quemado (burnt), favourite brand is Coronado. Best served fresh on a spoon.

5. Blackcurrant and Liquorice Eclairs
Whoever dreamed up combining the flavours of blackcurrant and liquorice? Sheer genius. The boiled sweet is heaven and then the chewy contrast of the aniseedy liquorice.

4. Anglo Bubble Gum
You need two at a time to get a really good bubble-blowing session going. There's a salty tang to these that I love. (Bazooka Joe is okay too, and Bubble Yum. I disapprove of all these new fruit-flavoured bubble-gums. Bubble Gum should taste of Bubble Gum!)

3. Pear Drops
Not the massive ones which slice your tonque when you suck them down to razor-sharp candy slivers, but the small, sugar-encrusted ones. What an amazing flavour; nothing likes pears, but exactly like something we used to make in organic chemistry practicals.

2. Rose and Violet Creams
Juicy, floral fondants in dark chocolate. The more expensive the better. The local French patisserie does these; delicious. My favourite flavour is rose, except on days when it's violet.

1. Thorntons Special Toffee
Gosh this is good. I have tasted many, many a toffee and not found it's equal. Buttery and caramely; I've spent a lot of time trying to cook sugar and do not underestimate how hard it must have been to get this recipe right. The flavoured variants are well-intended but they just detract from the subtle buttery notes which float over the caramelised, milky sugar. Stick to Original.

P.S. Can't believe I forgot Spanish turron, a sweet made from almonds! Jijona-style, please. Mmmmm.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Gobbolino the Witch's Cat

I first read this, one of my favourite children's books, when I was about seven after seeing it on the TV show 'Jackanory'. After just a chapter or two, I remember thinking that I MUST HAVE IT! I hassled my mother until she went to buy it from a bookshop. That must have been a marathon mithering session because we were too poor (or my stepfather too mean? who knows) to actually buy books. I owned fewer than twenty books by the time I was 12. But the library just wouldn't do for this book. With a fierce desire, I wanted to own this one.
Tonight, I'll be reading the final chapter to our little five-year old daughter. It's the first long book we've read with her - until now we were mainly reading the wonderful picture books by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. But my beloved baby brother Michael remembered how much I loved this book and sent it to our daughter last Christmas. So I thought we'd try it out, to see if she was ready for a long narrative - and she is.
She's very excited about bedtime tonight, to see how things work out for Gobbolino. Me, I'm watering at the mouth at the possibilities this opens up. "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" is next - she adores the film. Then perhaps "The Robber Hotzenplotz".
It's all lovely. Our older daughter didn't share my tastes in books - adventure stories. She was bored by most of the long books I tried to read to her, until we discovered Jackie Wilson. But our younger one is dying to be read Harry Potter. I think we'll give that just a couple more years, for maximum impact.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Ancient Knowledge at the Ice Cream Cafe

Ancient Knowledge at the Ice Cream Cafe
Originally uploaded by

I have become a Flickr addict, I admit it. Especially since this morning when another member added me as a contact. I favourited some photos yesterday and a few were this guy's amazing photos of Mexico. This morning I spent ages admiring the rest of his work...check out Aleksu on

I started looking around at other stuff you can do on Flickr. Pretteh, pretteh, pretty cool! You can upload to you blog via email. Which means that if you are like me, also a CrackBerry addict, you don't need to pay to moblog!

Here's a poster I saw in G&D's ice-cream cafe yesterday. This ancient knowledge stuff is all the rage, it seems, or la bomba as we Latinos say. Let's hope it still is in say any more might be a spoiler...

Emailed from my BlackBerry®

Thursday, 21 June 2007

This could be Leo...

This could be Leo...
Originally uploaded by

This morning, sorting through some photos I took in Cuba I came across this. I'm just writing a section of 'Jaguar' in which the hero, 'Leo', dressed in a borrowed school uniform (they are standardized across Cuba) is escaping across Cuba. 'Leo' is a blond boy, 12 years old, of Russian and Siberian descent who's lived most of his life in a secret school in Cuba.

And lookee, here he is...

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

My New Editing Regime...and Memories of Subcloning

The publisher and I have agreed a deadline for Joshua bk 1 v3.0. I'm deep in the process of writing Jaguar though, and can't let the momentum go. So I try to work on Jaguar in the morning at my desk, take a two-hour break to refresh and then it's on with the editing, which seems to require a different skillset as far as I can tell.

Thank goodness for editors. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Mine is probably going to save me from being a laughing stock, if nothing else - hopefully a lot else but you can't predict these things.

I like to take my manuscript out for little walks. I can't be bothered going all the way to the Bod this time around - I'm only spending 2 hours a day on it, what with the Jaguar writing taking up all my morning brain activity. So I've been going to Summertown.

The above photo is taken of my set-up at the Summertown Wine Cafe, a bijoux little joint on South Parade which makes the best coffee in Summertown (there are many Italian coffee machines in Summertown, but few baristas who have a clue how to use them). Sadly however, they charge a small fortune for savoury food - best to stick to cake, I'm trying to avoid blimpdom so that's out.

Blah, blah, blah. Nothin of consequence in this entry sadly. I'm just writing something to have to test in a new way to do an RSS feed. If you read this, you've just participated in an experiment.

Do you feel used?

I kind of miss doing experiments. Somewhere in the back of my mind is the niggling feeling that a PROPER day's work is what I used to pull off at the height of my keenness as a graduate student...a long day in the lab which ends with a successfully identified new DNA subclone to use in a lovely biological experiment.

'Subcloning' is a way of starting with a widgey little bit of DNA that is no use to anyone and two days later having bucketloads (as much as a milligram!) of the stuff that you can use to do biological experiments in tissue culture cells or even in unsuspecting fluffy creatures. (Some journals are so fussy that you can't get published unless your results are in a live organism.)

You insert a piece of experimental DNA into a 'vector' of usually bacterial or yeast DNA which has the ability massively to replicate it. Then you can grow the 'bugs' in a 500ml culture overnight and in the morning extract enough DNA to 'transfect' cells which allow you to test the properties of your experimental DNA. The tricky bit is that when you try to stick your experimental DNA to the vector DNA, only a small fraction will combine to give you the subclone. The rest will just be vector DNA that sticks back to itself.

When I were a lass we used to pick at least 24 bacterial colonies in the hope that 2 or 3 would have the subclone. It could take up to a whole day, a day spent 'doing minipreps', as we used to call it. Sometimes you had to use radioactivity and horrible, ooky, gloopy, neurotoxic polyacrylamide gel to help identify the subclone.

(Any molecular biologists reading this, bright young things with your PCR, your DNA synthesisers and sequencing's all very easy now, I'll bet.)

But! Throughout most of career as a molecular biologist I noticed that although I was a good little scientist and picked my 24-48 colonies everytime I wanted to find a correctly subclone, more often than not, colony 1 (the first I picked with a sterile toothpick) actually had the subclone. i.e. I didn't need colonies 2-24 and all the effort in 'working them up' was not actually essential.

Other people in my lab noticed this too. It turns out that in maths the number 1 is disproportionately represented (there's some rule and it's used as a way to detect fraud), well, in molecular biology this seems true too.

Don't think we let that observation go to waste, either. Towards the end of my time in the lab, I would often just pick a colony right off, inoculate my 500ml flask and grow up the bugs without testing whether they had the subcloned DNA in them. It saved a whole day! Of course I tested a sample before I used it to transfect my tissue culture cells. Well, duh.

If you didn't understand a thing I wrote in the last few paras, tell me. R1X did, so I have tried to rewrite it so that it makes sense.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Carnival de Cuba

Ariel Rios Robert (left) as the Orisha Eleggua, with an impromptu dance student
I know, I'm like a stuck record.

Such a fabulous weekend of partying in Southwark Park at the Carnival de Cuba with mi gente caliente de Londres (those hot-blooded Londoners), followed by a night at Salsa Republic's Afterparty at Club Colosseum where everyone turned out in style. Including (bless their colourful socks) the 8 best dancers from Ballet Rakatan who treated the clubbers to a blistering guaguanco and rueda show at 1.30am, after doing two performances that day.
(You can see the guaguanco here...from some TV show, not exactly what they did in the nightclub)

Flaked out between 12.30am and 1am...thinking...this is it...I can't take any more.

But a quick snooze put me right. Well, not really. Young children and nightclubs don't mix well - they conspire to rob you of sleep. Didn't drink a single drop of alcohol last night but this morning felt like I had a horrible hangover.

I'll be Youtubing some clips of all those Londoners grooving away in the park. (Yes, including me.)

Friday, 15 June 2007

A Brush with Cuba in Summertown

Miladis Diaz shows paintings by Cuban artist Fuster at The North Wall of South Parade, Summertown, Oxford

A stroll into Summertown today resulted in a surprise Indian lunch at the Spice Lounge (a bargain at £4.95!), a coffee in Costa's watching Oxford Uni students spilling out of their Prelims in sub-fusc (and pink carnations...we always wore red or white...since when is it pink?) and then a drop-in to an art exhibition on South Parade where one of Cuba's premier artists, Fuster, is showing his work.

(see The Colours of Life, in Oxford until 24th June)

Miladis and I had a nice chat about Havana and Cuban art. I told her I was writing a book set in Cuba and this morning had written a scene set in a 'country school', where high-school students are used as unpaid labour to harvest coffee for the state-owned industry. I admired her name, as exotic as are many Cuban names.

"The truth is, lots of them are made-up," she said, blushing.
"And they're the better for it," I said.
"I'm not so sure. You get all these silly ones, starting with Y... it's a generational thing," she said. "People in their twenties and younger. Ynieski, Yulieski, Yolexis, Yoanni, Yumiel, Yadel, Yonelki, Yunior..."
It was my turn to blush. "I used the name Yoannis for one of my characters," I admitted, "And I know a Yunior..."

Miladis gave me the phone number of her friend in Havana for next time we're there. Her friend is a biologist who writes children's books, as coincidence would have it!

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Jaguar - the Midpoint...

Reaching the Midpoint of a story is always deeply satisfying (for me). You're beyond the part where you feel you've broken the back of the manuscript, in terms of wordcount you're halfway there if not more, the end starts to loom into view.

More than this though, if you've constructed the plot properly, this is where things should seeeriously take off. If you have, the Midpoint should include a spine-tingling reveal, (simply delicious to write)and then the pace should ratchet up a notch, stakes increase, excitement factor nudged up a level...all of which makes the story easier to write.

In past manuscripts, when I've reached the Midpoint, typically I find that I can painlessly add another 500 words to my daily target.

Well, today I need to write the Midpoint of Project Jaguar. I'm not sure I'm worthy of it. Looking at what the plot calls for, I'm feeling way too fuzzy to write it well. Battling some virus or other...right eye infected, bloodshot and sore...committee meeting to chair later this afternoon.

A Midpoint is to be relished. I think the writer has to enjoy it, before anyone else. If you don't have fun telling it the story, how can anyone have fun hearing it?

So...gosh. I'll have to take a break. Get some inspiration. Maybe go to a juice bar in town and buy Haruki Murakami's new book?

How to be thin - don't eat enough

Well it's all downhill for me, intellectually speaking. I'm experiencing a strange symptom of what is probably an early-onset form of dementia. It's this: I've completely lost the ability to guesstimate how much pasta to cook to feed a family of four.

I used to be an overestimater, if anything. I figured that extra was always good, because you could always make tomorrow's lunch. But now through no intentional action of mine, I'm an underestimator. When I cook pasta - which is something I cook at least three times a week - even though they all howl with disappointment. Not just that it's pasta (boo!) but that there's not enough. They're always still hungry.

It reminded me of when I was growing up. We were never, ever given meals that left us feeling satisfied. My stepfather had grown up during the post-war rationing period and believed in small portions. (It was different in Mexico, obviously, where you could eat until you popped and proud relatives would stand by going 'Look how well she eats!')

But I was stick-thin until I was about 20, so this not-eating-enough thing clearly has something going for it. I'm sticking to the underestimating and telling my family to be glad of going to bed hungry. I try to fool them by heaping salad on top so they don't notice the pitiful serving of pasta underneath. When they complain, I growl, "S'more than I used to get, so think on!"
They don't listen though, these kids. They head for the cupboard and eat big spoonfuls of peanut butter.

P.S. No-one suggest using a balance, please. Weighing ingredients is for cissies who can't cook in anything but a properly-equipped kitchen. That's not the way I was taught Domestic Science by Mrs Blackwell. It's acceptable to weigh amounts for confectionary and high-end baking - say French pastries - but nothing else.

The principle can transfer to some aspects of laboratory work. I speak as one who even learned to make tissue culture medium and bacterial growth broths by flicking out The Right Amount, who added DNA and restriction enzymes in amounts we referred to in the lab as A Smidgeon, A Wodge and A S***load. (a s***load was 10 microlitres, just to give you the scale)

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Pokemon Revisited

I've got a real soft spot for Pokemon. Oh, I don't keep up with it now. Where are they...Johto? Probably far beyond that. But I remember being addicted to the first few seasons. I even remember being bitterly disappointed at the lameness of Pokemon - The Movie. Our eldest daughter (now fourteen) collected trading cards (the excitement of her first Charizard!)and stickers, all the Gameboy games, had the soundtrack and everything.

Time was, I even knew part of the Poke-Rap. I reckon I watched every episode of the first two seasons with my eldest girl. That's over 100 episodes!

So today, when our little one (aged 5) asked to hear the Jigglypuff song and wanted to hug a cuddly Pikachu she found in her mountain of inherited soft toys. I felt a stab of nostalgia for:

  • Squirtle and Jigglypuff
  • Any episode featuring the childhood memories of James of Team Rocket - especially the one where he is going to be married off and ends up cross-dressing - again

  • The brilliantly kitschy songs in the first two seasons

I remember one of our accountants back then sitting in a pub with me and chuntering over the phenomenon. "It'll all blow over, won't it," he said. "Like Beanie Babies?" "I don't know," I told him. "It's got a richly detailed world and story. It could have longevity."

Well, it may not be the worldwide phenomenon it was years ago, but as far as I'm aware, it's still going pretty strong. And from the way our five-year old went to bed singing the Jigglypuff song to herself tonight, I think we may be in for a major revisitation of Pokemon round our way.

Rare books mark climactic page in archaeology's history

This article in the Boston University Bridge caught my eye two years back and inspired a chapter in 'Todd Garcia, Boy Archaeologist', a chapter which didn't make it to the first two drafts of 'The Joshua Files'.

The article describes how a book collector came across a super-rare copy of a book by the explorer who kicked off the whole field of Mayan archaeology, John Lloyd Stephens. The bookstore didn't recognise quite what they had in their shop, not having realised that the apparently insignificant inscription in the flyleaf was from the author to President Martin Van Buren.

Only two copies of this book ('Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan') would be more valuable and are in fact still missing...the author's own copy and the one he gave to his friend and collaborator, the artist Frederick Catherwood.

In real life they are still missing. In 'The Joshua Files', however, one of these might be hiding, unnoticed in a second-hand bookshop in Jericho, Oxford...

And today, that deleted chapter (rewritten for Joshua) will be making its way into Invisible City version 3.0.

(Provided I don't get tempted by something else, like an afternoon at the pool. Fingers crossed for rain...)

Monday, 11 June 2007

WOW! Havana Rakatan

Promotional video for Ballet Rakatan

We saw the terrific dance show Havana Rakatan in London on Saturday. Performed and choreographed by a Cuban ballet troupe who specialise in folkloric dance, it demonstrates the evolution of dance in Cuba. From the fusion between Spanish dances like flamenco and African rhythms and dance from the Santeria religion, the show charts the development of dances including son, mambo, cha-cha-cha, rumba and salsa.

It covers similar ground to the show Lady Salsa but in a more balletic manner, without any explanatory narrative. The music is performed by son band Turquino, a tight ensemble who play a hugely impressive set.

The dancers are all gorgeous, but my favourites were Joel and Yordy. It was hard to take my eyes off the beautiful men, (especially during the little striptease at the beginning where, breathing hard after a strenuous introductory number, the men line up at the front, slowly unbutton their shirts to much audience encouragement, and strip to the waist, revealing a row of the most delectable torsos you're likely to see this side of Cuba...)

I did occasionally watch the women too, who were pretty darn fabulous.

Act 1 focuses on the African dances of the Orisha deities who intercede, in the Santeria/Lukumi religion, between humans and the creator God. That very morning I'd written a scene featuring a Santeria chant to Ochun. Watching Havana Rakatan, I was delighted to hear that very chant being used to open the sequence of breathtaking dances of the Orishas.

(It is also the chant at the beginning of Adalberto Alvarez's santeria-rap-salsa composition, 'Y Que Tu Quieres Que Te Den'.)

Act 1 alone is worth the ticket price. To see these dances performed by the world experts in Afro-Cuban folkloric dance is a huge treat. The music adds another level. I was simply astonished at how well Turquino and their singers performed this Afro-Cuban music. Mesmerizing is the only word for it. I could have listened to them for hours. At one point five singers (including two percussionists) joined in, singing tight close-harmony. Spellbinding!

The other highlight is the blistering performance of rumba near the end. Echoing their earlier roles as warring Orishas, the two lead dancers performed a rumba contest, including the fastest tembleque (shaking of the shoulders and pelvis) I've ever seen.

It's on at the Peacock Theatre in London's West End, until 23rd June. I may have to go again...

The reviews use words like 'dazzling' 'spectacular' 'rip-roaring'. They're NOT exaggerating.

(NB If you go on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday there are salsa classes, DJ and dancing 'til late.)

The Secret

Whilst dining together at a Lebanese restaurant in Andalucia to celebrate her wedding for the third time, my lovely friend Alison turned to me and asked me if I knew of the secret.

Ummmm, no, I said.

"I mean, 'The Secret' - a movie, now a book too - it's a publishing phenomenon."

I didn't know anything about it, living as I do in a claustrophobic fog of adventure stories, school governance and salsa dancing.

Well, I've been missing out, by the sounds of things.

From Wikipedia:

The Secret, described as a self-help film,[2][3] uses a documentary format to present the "Law of Attraction." This law is the "secret" that, according to the tagline, "has traveled through centuries to reach you." The film features short dramatized experiences and interviews of a "dizzying dream team of personal transformation specialists, spiritual messengers, feng shui masters, and moneymaking experts".[4] As put forth in the film, the "Law of Attraction" principle posits that people's feelings and thoughts attract real events in the world into their lives; from the workings of the cosmos to interactions among individuals in their physical, emotional, and professional affairs. The film also suggests that there has been a strong tendency by those in positions of power to keep this central principle hidden from the public. The previews or "clues" to the film, show men who "uncovered the Secret...".

Oh.My.Giddy.Aunt. It's prayer for the secular! That is too, too wonderful.

There's so much I could say about this...but I won't be tempted. I'll just relate the rest of mine and Alison's conversation. (We were enjoying the best part of a bottle of vino tinto at the time.)

"So I don't need to work hard on making my novels exciting...and the publishers don't need to work hard marketing them...all we need to do is to visualize the book being a big success...?"

Alison nodded. "Visualize your success. Don't let any negative thoughts interfere at all! Don't have anything to do with people who cause you to experience negative thoughts or feelings!"

"Visualize my success...?" I repeated. It surely can't be that simple. But according to Alison, that's just what The Secret is all about. If you visualize it enough and with enough of the right vibes (and none of the wrong vibe), the universe will align itself with your wishes. Don't ask how, but I'm sure there's an underlying pseudo-scientific explanation designed to bamboozle.

"Visualize it...massively," Alison said. "Look, I'm doing what I can, babe. I'm already visualizing you paying for us all to come here again next year..."

The following day, more sober, Alison pointed out the flaw in The Secret.

"Anyone who's ever experienced unrequited love knows that it's a load of hooey. I've spent most of my life fantasizing about various women, visualizing and everything...and it never worked!"

I thought about this for a second. "But did you ever consider asking any of these women...?"

Alison's face fell. "Wha...? No... You think I should have...?"

The Secret. It's one of those things that only works if you put in the hard work also. As with prayer - God helps those who help themselves.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Timba and the challenges of escapist music

While researching the Orishas of the Santeria religion I came across this fascinating academic article about the origins and social impact of timba music.

One of the things that I find intriguing about the popularity of Afro-Cuban music and dance in the non-Spanish-speaking world is that the music and rhythms clearly have the power to transcend the language barrier. Watching people dancing away I sometimes wonder - do people have a clue what the lyrics are saying? Does it matter? Are they somehow getting the ache (the spirit) of the song without understanding the lyric?

If you've ever wondered, I highly recommend this article, which

"makes the case of timba as a type of non-engaged music which, while presenting itself as emphatically escapist, during the 1990s has in fact become intensely political in the way it has articulated a discourse challenging dominant views on race, class, gender and nation."

Friday, 8 June 2007

That's what I'M talking about...

Just came across this Youtube video entitled, Reggaeton in Cuba, 3 hot girls dancing in a disco.

The first two girls dance about as well as I might hope to dance one day if I keep practicing 30 mins a day. (Oh let's face it, I'm dreaming.)

The third girl, especially when she gets going, looks to me like a professional dancer. She is awesome!

The band is Charanga Habanera, timba geniuses, and according to the debate on Youtube, the dance is known as reparto. But it looks like what we in the UK refer to as reggaeton.

Dale reggaeton!

New Content? Did I say 'New content'?

The comments on Joshua book 1 version 2.0 are in. After a lengthy meeting over fennel tea and swiss chocolates (aren't we girly?), The Editor and I had a frank discussion of what still isn't working as well as it could. And from this emerged, yesterday, my new draft of the plot for v3.0. The exciting part for me is that it calls for New Content.

Yesiree. Editing where you're just cutting is no fun, not to me anyway. There's a sort of masochistic pleasure to it. Ha! I'll cut out my favourite chapter then, see if I care! That sort of thing. But adding in New Content is lovely. I wrote one new chapter for version 2.0 and writing that was the best bit.

But version 3.0 calls for the restoration - in suitable form - of two sequences which originally appeared in 'Todd Garcia, Boy Archaeologist', the oft-rejected ms which provided the central concept for 'The Joshua Files'.

And they're two really fun sequences, too. I'm relocating one to an even more evocative setting - originally set in a Cotswold village, it will now be set in Oxford's-canal based neighbourhood, Jericho.

It's my first experience of being edited, and I'm really impressed with the attention to detail in a second edit. Little things get picked up, like the consistency of a particular character's diction.

I'm going to film myself writing one of these new chapters and put it on Youtube after the book is launched. I got the idea from my mate Noam, about whom I posted a few weeks back. I might even go to Jericho to write it, on my little red laptop.


(In an aside, Caitlin Moran writes in The Times Online:

"Big Brotherly love
Quick note to all those who are saying that they are “Not going to watch Big Brother this year, actually” – YOU ARE DELUSIONAL. Get out of denial and put the telly on."

To which I say...Get behind me, Satan!

Oh help. It's Friday night - eviction night. Must find salsa event to attend....)

Thursday, 7 June 2007

I am becoming an airhead with the attention span of a five-year old

Actually, my five-year old daughter has a longer attention span than me.

Sometimes I wonder what on earth has become of me. I used to listen to Bach and Mozart and Palestrina and sing in choirs and have a season ticket to the orchestra and read a book a month at least, as well as a bunch of scientific papers, watch TV for hours at a stretch and have dinner parties where people tried to make intelligent conversation.

Well, stuff all that. Now it's work, family and salsa.

My friend Nathan has the same issue. We did the middle-aged stuff in our twenties and now we live for our nights out on the town. My friend Dr. Rebecca too, who won the Gibbs prize for Biochemistry in our year at Uni - she's out dancing 3 or 4 times a week, hooking up with Cuban hotties and whatnot...

I can't watch TV for more than 30 mins without having to get up and see who's on MSN. I prefer simultaneously to chat to my cousins on MSN, read blogs and post to my own, and watch Youtube videos than to watch TV. (I KNOW!!! What the heck?!)

And...gah...I haven't finished reading a novel for ages. I can still read non-fiction, just.

I probably need a brain scan. I think the pod people have got me.

But you know what? I feel like Tom in that Tom&Jerry cartoon where Tom inherits a million dollars, on condition that he does no harm to a living creature, EVEN A MOUSE, and after struggling to restrain himself, he gives in and goes back to persecuting Jerry, saying "I'm throwing away a million dollars...BUT I'M HAPPY!"

Now. Who's on MSN...?

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Left Brain, Right Brain

Beth, looking pretty much as she did 20 years ago... Full moon on the beach at Conil de la Frontera.

Well it's a funny coincidence because after a discussion with an old friend last week during a moonlit, firelit beach party (with flamenco music) in Andalucia, the same topic came up in the latest Litopia podcast (005).

Beth, a Bostonian woman I hadn't seen for 20 years since we briefly crossed paths at St Catz, Oxford, now works as the foreign media officer in a hospital in the US. She produces short movies about the hospitals healthcare offerings. She'd known me 20 years ago as a biochemist and was intrigued to hear that I was now going to be an author. "So you can do left brain stuff as well as right brain," she said, fascinated.

I bet most of us can, although some scientists I know probably can't. My brother-in-law, for example, who admits to 'outsourcing' all his emotions to my wonderfully sensitive, touchy-feely sister. (He won't mind me saying this, but he might have to check with my sister if he's supposed to be cross about it...)

I admitted to her that I have a very 'left brain' approach to writing, in that I'm massively structural. Beth seemed very surprised that it could work this way, so I explained.

Where did the 'muse' come into it, that's what Beth wanted to know.

It's an interesting question. I was reflecting with Agent Cox the other day that when I read back my writing, months later, I mean, I look at it in wonder and think, "Did I really write this?"

Not that I'm making a value judgement, just that all that time later, I can't see what part of me those words came from. I've begun to think that some weird entity takes over me when I sit down to write. Now - the entity has its instructions - because the structure is all in place by the time I start to write. But aside from two or three lines dictating what must happen in the next 1500 words, the entity is free to get on with it, and it does, and I don't seem to have a lot of conscious input. I guess that's the right brain taking over. It's verrrry strange.

Borges wrote this wonderful little essay 'Borges and I', in which he described how strange it felt to be the writer in this relationship with his famous self. There was the Borges who went and gave talks and was received over the world and lauded. Then there was he, Borges, who wrote the words that made that other Borges so famous. And the writer-Borges didn't always feel that connected to the famous-Borges.

When I first thought about all this, I hadn't thought of it in terms of left-brain/right-brain. (Well, duh, I am gradually becoming a hedonistic airhead, in case no-one had noticed). But I guess it kind of is.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Capoiera in Oxford

Here's a video I made last year of the Oxford capoeira players demonstrating their sport in Summertown. The hero of "The Joshua Files" is a capoeirista. I love watching this sport, something I became interested in when on a business trip to the USA. I had this really tense meeting to go to and I couldn't sleep, so watched this bad-but-fascinating movie called "Only the Strong", all about a school teacher who motivates a gang of rough kids through capoeira that he's learned in the street gangs of Brazil.

I really love writing the capoeira sections of Joshua.

(Yes, the compression sucks on this version, I don't quite know how to fix it. Looks fine when I run it locally... Any suggestions welcome.)

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Maikel Blanco Y Su Salsa Mayor

Maikel Blanco y Su Salsa Mayor (Maikel on keyboards)

(Yes, I'm still going on about Cuba...)
I finally found the name of the salsa band who played in Casa de la Musica the night I first took my teenage daughter to Galiano in Havana. Yes, naughty me, I passed her for 18 when she's only 14 and introduced her to a world of loud timba music, the best dancing in Havana, the raunchy dance moves of Bustamente and Yoandy who were grinding away with their latest dance pupils (who we met weeks later in Oxford), the Cuban hottie who tried to get my daughter to fall for him...and to this amazing timba band Maikel Blanco Y Su Salsa Mayor, who had us mesmerized.
Their hit son "Eso Esta" (This Is...) is my FAVOURITE salsa song to dance to. I hear this and I have to dance... Here's the video of "Eso Esta".

Soneando en Oxford - Claro Que Si!

What a pleasure last night to see a halfway decent homegrown salsa band - Soneando.

The creation of a Bristol-based keyboard player, Sara and two British conga/bongo players, Soneando also feature Jimmy, a Columbian bass player and Cuban tres-player and frontman (I think they called him Jesus...?). Yesterday they added in a terrific singer from Santiago de Cuba whose sultry, high voice blended brilliantly in the harmonies with the two male singers. It was a set of classics of Cuban son, but with groovy piano lines and pretty-darn-good improvisations.

They were as good as any small (i.e. non-famous) band we saw in Cuba. Seriously.

After dancing son all night, David and I felt as though we'd been at the Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba - another place with zero air conditioning.
I went to talk to the lead singer afterwards. "You guys were great!" I said. He shook his head, embarrassed. "No...we were RUBBISH!".

A Cuban from Las Tunas, he was amazed and then sceptical to hear that I'd liked Las Tunas, through which we'd passed on the bus to Santiago, about two months ago. Jesus has a nice line in stage patter - in English too. He likes the word "Wha'eva".