Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Wizard Earl

One step into the Museum of the History of Science and I had entered Philip Pullman’s fantasy world of His Dark Materials. The Oxford author had clearly found inspiration for Lyra’s magical alethiometer (the golden compass) in the museum’s collections of astrolabes and sundials. The 1590’s armillary sphere (pictured above) was owned by Henry Percy, the ninth Earl of Northumberland. He was known as the “Wizard Earl.” The globes had astrological signs on them.



Director Jim Bennett explained that this was not a museum of modern science but rather “the finest collection of early instruments in the world.” The Persian astrolabes (above) dated from the 15th to the 18th centuries. There were other artifacts from the 11th century and many from the Renaissance. The instruments were called “mathematical” as the science focused on measuring distance and time in relation to the stars and planets for surveying and navigation.

Originally known as the Ashmolean, it was the first building ever constructed for the purpose of being a museum. It was completed in 1685 to embrace the new science in the university. The method of teaching was experiment and demonstration, a departure from the traditional reading of lectures. Like an allegory, the basement originally housed the chemical laboratories, the ground floor was devoted to the study of natural history and the top floor was the museum.

The new science museum was truly public from its conception. The six pence admission meant that few commoners could afford to visit, but those who could pay, including women, were welcome. What a radical concept for the 17th century! Some of the elite boycotted the museum for this reason.

I was surprised to see so many sundials during the period that clocks and pocket watches were gaining popularity. Dr. Bennett explained that clocks, which measure average solar time, had to be set off sundials. Interestingly, the sundials were a far more accurate measurement of time. Some were small enough to carry in a pocket and made additional measurements such as Babylonian time. Bennett compared them to the silly extra features on digital watches. Technology may have changed, but human nature has not. It’s all about the cool gadgets.

These days the entire building is devoted to the museum. The basement now houses the more modern collection, including its most famous object: a blackboard used by Einstein to show his cosmological equations. There is also the first wireless machine used to broadcast soprano Nellie Melba in 1920. An historic event included in the book my husband is writing on public television. Demonstrations of the ancient instruments are given at the table. I’d love to bring our engineer-inclined son back for an astrolabe or sundial demonstration.

My tour was arranged by the Oxford Newcomers' Club, and it was a fine way to spend a cold, wet morning. The leaves are mostly down, but the grass is still bright green and will be all winter. I miss snow. Perhaps that explains why the novel I started reading yesterday was Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Maybe I’m just pining after my own winter’s tale, S.A.D., which is with a reader now. S.A.D. is also about teaching science. Have you ever felt homesick for a novel?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Philip Pullman on Writing Myth & Religion


I thought it was a joke: Philip Pullman, young adult author and outspoken critic of organized religion, in a public discussion with, get this, the vicar in a church. So it’s okay to be organized in a church so long as the topic is writing.

I grabbed my teenaged son, who loved His Dark Materials trilogy even more then Harry Potter, and joined throngs of Oxford students at The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin on October 22nd. What a dramatic setting: stained glass, vaulted ceilings and gargoyles dating back to the 13th century. I half expected to find a daemon lurking in the pews. The fantasy series was set in his hometown of Oxford in this universe and in others.

Philip Pullman fitted the collegiate venue. He looked and sounded more like a tenured college professor than a bestselling author and iconoclast. He was warm and friendly with his host, Canon Brian Mountford.

Pullman referred to himself as a “Church of England Atheist.” He praised the Bible for its beautiful prose and noted religion’s value in building community. Pullman’s quarrel is not so much with religion but that “the church abandoned people in my position.” He cited religious wars, persecution and intolerance.

The Church of England was an important part of his personal history. He seemed to regard it more like an eccentric relative than the enemy. When Pullman was only seven, his father died. His grandfather, an ordained minister, partially raised him. Pullman praised his beloved grandfather for being a gifted storyteller. Later Pullman claimed that parents could do better by telling moral stories as opposed to religious ones.

In a Hollywood minute, the conversation jumped from religion to the upcoming film version of His Dark Materials. When Mountfield asked if the adaptation was true to the book, Pullman replied that the film is but one in a long series of different ways of telling the same story. Since writing the novels, there have been abridged audio books, a radio dramatization and 2 stage plays. Each has a different emphasis that reflects the genre.

His Dark Materials film will have special effects not possible on the page. It won’t be the same because the book takes eleven hours to read out loud, compared to a two-hour film. Pullman also wrote some special scenes just for the movie.

What impressed me most was Pullman’s eloquence and lack of conceit. He seemed to see the writer as a tool in the process: “stories only come into being when you read them; you can’t tell the meaning.”

Pullman has no problem with readers having different interpretations or leaving questions unanswered. When writing, the author is a tyrant and the process is despotic. Once the book becomes published, it becomes a democracy of the readers. “Reading is engaged in silence and secrecy, and there is nothing I can do about it.”

Writing is still hard work. The Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the USA) took Pullman seven years to write. It still isn’t faultless. “If you want to write a perfect piece of literature, write a haiku or a sonnet but don’t bother writing a novel.”

Nonetheless, Pullman appreciates the craftsmanship of forming sentences and the discipline of using words precisely. He frequently consults the dictionary and loathes clichés. His focus is as much on enjoying the medium of language as on telling the story. With experience writing gets both harder and easier. “It is easier because there are more ways to say the same thing, but it is harder to choose.”

What sets Pullman apart from most contemporary writers of children’s fiction are his literary references. His work draws heavily from the Judeo-Christian tradition and from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. His books resonate with the notion of fall and redemption. There is also a fair bit of science, including string theory, in creating his parallel universes and “dust.”

His Dark Materials leave readers of any age with questions. The biggest one is “what is dust?”

Pullman explained, “It is the visual analogue of all things known, all thoughts. What I call dust is what makes us what we are.” He avoided using the term soul but instead referred to the human “sense of consciousness.” The purpose of dust was “to develop a myth as a place to stand like in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

I’m wondering how much of this will be clear to my ten-year-old daughter, who just started reading the series. To her, it is all about the daemons, those lovable animalistic beings that are the other half of humans. My daughter would calls them cute, little shape changers, but Pullman said they are the “aspect of oneself.”

Pullman claims that his best idea was having the daemons constantly changing form until their humans hit puberty. At heart, it is a young adult book dealing with this magical transformation from child to adult.

Biggest laughs came when Pullman answered the question of what would be his daemon. “My daemon would be a scruffy bird that steals from his neighbors.” He elaborated on how his imaginative fiction is rooted in research.

There is no doubt in my mind that his best character is the drunken, armored polar bear. Pullman created this creature and the dueling scene after reading an 1812 essay about fencing with a bear. His magic brings it to life.

The view from St. Mary's tower of Oxford

On the way out, we dropped a couple pounds in the church collection box. St. Mary’s also raises funds from visitors to the tower and by running a café called Vaults and Garden. The food is fresh and wholesome. Still, it’s hard to imagine any of this happening in an American church. That’s the fun of living abroad.

A blog is the ultimate democracy of the readers. What’s your take on Philip Pullman’s mythology?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Happy Hallowgiving

Goring-on-Thames

My daughter was miserable. Halloween in England didn’t cut it. The only ten-year-old in our neighborhood out trick-or-treating was babysitting the little ones. The young children came in store-bought costumes and said “Happy Halloween” instead of “trick-or-treat.” There were few jack-o-lanterns and certainly no children’s parade. It was small consolation that she could save her Goth chick costume for next year.

My mother-in-law came to the rescue. She proposed we gather the four grandchildren to celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving together. Ever since they came to visit us for Thanksgiving, my English in-laws have been celebrating the holiday. Everyone loves the idea of coming together for a meal to give thanks.

I agree. I am already missing not seeing my extended family in NYC. My cousin cooks for the 19 of us, and it is the only time we are all together other than weddings. Amazingly my mother-in-law recreated the American feast: it tasted just like home. She even made my mother’s stuffing and cranberry sauce. She baked her first pumpkin pie and my favorite of apple pie.


My husband’s family has become my own over the years despite the cultural barriers. His mother is a retired occupational therapist who enjoys painting lovely watercolors. Her husband has the same first name as my father so sometimes we refer to him as Captain. He’s half Chilean and met his wife because his father sold a Devonian farm to her parents. The Captain has a memoir out now about the Tanganyika Mutiny from his time in the royal navy.

When the Captain isn’t writing, he’s bell ringing at the medieval church. They live in a quaint village, Goring-on-Thames, surrounded by bucolic countryside. It’s like stepping into a Joanna Trollope novel visiting my in-laws.


Since I have a brother but no sisters, it’s a bonus having sisters-in-law. Henry's youngest sister works in international development, designing and managing HIV and AIDS prevention and care programs in low-income countries. She was just back from China and has worked in Africa too. She has a beautiful old flat in Bath. My daughter thinks her aunt dead cool. It’s not only her fascinating work; she has a great fashion sense and is wonderful with her niece and nephews.

Henry, his younger sister, Neil and Jess

Henry’s older sister, Jessica Bett, is a planner in the South Gloucestershire Council. She has a degree in industrial archeology and collects old green glassware. Jess has an easy laugh and a gentle nature. She and her husband, Neil, live in Bristol.

Neil Bett is Scottish and a talented actor with a great sense of humor. He and a partner set up Barking Productions LLP. Actors teach businessmen, bureaucrats and doctors better public relations skills through role-playing. Neil still acts occasionally and will be on Max Bear with Tom Baker. It won't air until Christmas 2008. Jess and Neil have two boys close to my children in age. They get on fabulously.

Henry invented the game of Pirate Bold. It’s sort of like freeze tag but with a hidden treasure. The game starts with, “Ar, Jim lad!” The children run off base looking for the treasure chest while the grown ups tag them by hand or throwing a soft ball (ie. “firing a broadside.”) The best part is eating the chocolate treasure. For the Halloween version, they all dressed up in costumes except for my teenaged son. Granny provided plenty of extra treats and “pudding” as dessert is called in England.

It also happened to be November 11th so they went to a village service at 11:00 AM with girl and boy scouts and war veterans. Remembrance Day is like our Veteran’s Day only so many more Brits died in WWI. Everyone wears paper red poppies and dresses up somberly for the occasion. It was also my brother’s birthday so I called him in NYC and recounted our wonderful weekend. It felt like going home.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Lord & Lady Krebs at Jesus College


The best fun of writing is playing location scout. It gets me out of my office and takes me to settings I could not have imagined. Last week I visited Jesus College. Our guide was the Principal himself, Lord Krebs.


Oxford colleges remind me of gemstones. On the outside most look the same in weathered sandstone, but inside are glittering jewels, each one unique and full of history. Many are closed to the public. These ancient rocks are hard to crack.

The Oxford Newcomer’s Club is designed for the other halves. Our husbands/wives/partners are working or studying at the University. The club takes pleasure in arranging special insider tours only for us. The organizers are mostly academic spouses themselves and can relate to our displacement and isolation.

The inner courtyards are quiet and laid with perfect grass, but don’t step on it! It feels like a castle or a monastery. That makes sense since many Oxford colleges were started as religious instituitions. Jesus College was founded by royal charter in 1571, making it one of the middle-aged colleges. The earliest ones date from the thirteenth century.


Each college is like an archeological dig with visible layers of history. Behind me in the first quad photo you can see the original sandstone of the dining hall, pitted with time. To my right is the oldest part of the college, but the third floor and those battlements were later additions. To my left is the principal’s residence.

Queen Elizabeth I founded Jesus College for the purpose of converting the Welsh to Protestantism by training clergymen for the recently established Anglican Church. The queen herself came from a Welsh family, the Tudors. The benefactor, Hugh Price, endowed it with the income from his Welsh estates. It was his idea to start the college. His income was not sufficient, but later graduates have contributed generously to make Jesus one of the wealthier colleges. Traditionally the students were predominantly Welsh, although reform has made the student body more diverse. It is still called the Welsh college.

Lady Krebs is Welsh, but her husband is not. They are both biologists. She used to teach at a girls’ technical college, and he has been a professor of ecology. He is now devoted to running Jesus College. His father, the former Lord Krebs, was also an Oxford college principal. Despite their lofty titles, I found the Krebs to be very warm and engaging. They were more Katharine and John than his lady and lordship.

Upon hearing that I was American, John smiled and told me the story of his summer in the States. He had taken a research job at Woods Hole on Cape Cod. At lunchtimes he snuck off to sail. Later he drove with his friends cross-country in a red Mustang.

We laughed over the words that mean one thing in English and another in American. A torch is a flashlight, and a rubber is not something you pull over your shoes to keep them dry. The amusing misunderstandings between the two cultures, despite a common language, will be a theme in my third novel. John and Katharine suggested some reading material for my research. They are eager to read NOT CRICKET one day.


Seeing inside the college was an inspiration. The double courtyard windows flooded the dining hall in sunlight. On the walls hung austere portraits of the founders and famous graduates such as Lawrence of Arabia, Harold Wilson and John Nash.


We also visited the old bursary where special guests go for dessert, port and even snuff under the eyes of Queen Elizabeth. There were many portraits of their royal founder in the college. King Charles I’s gold watch resides inside a glass display case. The silver postdates the republic years. During the Civil War, all the colleges had to donate their silver to flatten into coins to pay the soldiers. It amazes me that the Brits went back to a monarchy, but perhaps this is easier to understand if all the nobility were as charming and gracious as the Krebs.

Our college tour ended at the principal’s residence. Katharine served us coffee and cakes, and then John showed us around upstairs. I don’t think I have ever been inside a lovelier dwelling although it was very formal. Delft tiles lined the fireplaces. The large window overlooking the quad and private gardens made the space light and airy, especially on this rare sunny day.



On the walls hung portraits of former principals and impressionist paintings borrowed from the Ashmolean Museum. The oddest portrait was of a vegetable seller with a monkey on her shoulder. The monkey was a trick to lure customers into buying more produce. It was very unusual to have an oil painting of a commoner during the Renaissance.

After coffee, I wandered around Oxford soaking up the setting and taking photos of the turning leaves and golden buildings. Despite being November, it was so warm I had lunch outside. My mind raced with ideas for NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE). Should I use a real college or make one up? Lovers kissing became characters, and I walked their paths with a light step. On days like this I feel I have the best job in the world.


On the weekend my husband and I saw Elizabeth: the Golden Age. The cinematography was stunning and the acting was almost good enough to make you ignore the weak script. “There is a wind coming which will sweep away your pride,” says the Spanish Ambassador. Honestly! Forget the Virgin Queen, she was the Cliché Queen. The King of Spain and his mini-me daughter were Monty Pythonesque. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition or the Addams Family. Still, the talented Cate Blanchett was worth seeing. Even if this sequel was disappointing after the perfection of the first, Elizabeth I was a fascinating character. How amazing to leave the theater and pass the college she had founded.