The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, May 18, 2009


Apardion! It sounds like the name of a city from the Hyborian Age, and it nearly is: it's the Old Norse name for Aberdeen. I only learned this at the opening session of Word 09, which was a launch with readings for Silver: An Aberdeen Anthology, edited by Alan Spence and Hazel Hutchison. The earliest poetic reference to the city that they found was an account by Einarr Skulason of its sacking in 1153. Several of the contributors were on stage, to read one of their own poems and one other.

The 'Granite City' cliche is true: almost every building seems to be grey, with edges you could cut yourself on. It's like living in high-definition monochrome. Poets have noticed.

Thursday, the evening before the opening, saw the launch party and a concert by the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, a quite astonishingly energetic performance preceded by Alan Spence's readings of a few of his Japanese-inspired poems and haiku:

sudden gust -
the seagull scudding

My Wednesday talk, chaired by Ken Skeldon, for Cafe Scientifique went well, as did my festival event, with journalist Susan Mansfield as able and friendly interlocutor. I thoroughly enjoyed them and the rest of the festival, where all the writers were made welcome and were well looked after: thanks to Carley Williams, Karen Scaife, and Kelly, among others. Word 09 had a strong science thread, including a display of photos with text behind them, 'Fifty Words on Science'.

At a session titled 'The Evolution of Evolution' Ralph O'Connor, author of The Earth on Show, talked about the lively popular discussion and eventual widespread acceptance of the antiquity of the Earth and life, and even of evolution, in the half-century before Darwin published the Origin. Stuart Piertney followed this up with an account of the development of evolutionary theory from 1859 to the publication of Julian Huxley's Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942) - which according to Dr Piertney was intended as a popularization. There were giants in those days. At the end of the session we all got to marvel at some of the books from the university library's Special collections, including first editions of the Origin and of Vestiges of Creation.

The same evening, the King's College Centre was packed out to hear Joan Bakewell talk about her first novel, All the Nice Girls. As a nice girl in 1942 herself, Bakewell did a very good job of explaining how different the Britain of that time was.

Afterwards, I joined journalist Fiona Lang and poet Kelley Swain in the nearest pub. On the strength of a fascinating conversation I bought Kelley's book of wondrous poems, Darwin's Microscope, the following day, and Kelley was kind enough to sign it. Matter has a new singer.

Another really good science talk was an interview with Nick Lane, author of Life Ascending:The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, which I've just started reading and which looks great.

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On my first visit to the UK I was stranded in Aberdeen overnight by a 24-hour Britrail strike. Too cheap to pay for a hotel, I wandered the streets all night until the trains resumes the next day. There were low clouds and mist that made all the granite glisten (and it's not just the buildings but the pavements as well). Huge albotrosses (albatri?) soared down the streets only 25 or so feet off the ground. Amazing. And now that I live in the UK, I've never gone back.

Albatri? Here we call them herring gulls.

All that would probably appeal to me tremendously! I have spent much time in Finland and Sweden, with one exception during the Winter. My Nordic (=Scandinavia+Finland+Iceland) friends were amazed that I enjoyed darkness at 3am, often accompanied by snow. Some thought I was crazy. I recently moved to Sweden, so I'll experience the endless light as well. Maybe THAT will drive me batty.

Well, whatever they are, they're good eatin'.

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