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Just a quick update to let readers know that I will be having an exhibition of two of my light boxes from my Trophallaxis series at The Arbeit Gallery in Old Street from 11th-16th of June. It’s an exhibition that is being put on by The New Wolf Online Magazine, which exhibited my work among others on their online gallery last year. They chose to select what was considered the best of the exhibits, and fortunately my work was part of the selection.

The exhibition is called ‘Re: Thinking a City’ and explores the dynamics of London life. For references of The New Wolf Magazine please click on the links in my blog, and feel free to look up my Trophallaxis light boxes also posted here in the menu of my blog.

Here is the link to the gallery website:

http://arbeit.org.uk/#11-06-2012-17-06-2012

 Anyone with time is free to pass by and have a look.

 

 

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What can be said about Venice that has not already been said?

I shall attempt to make a contribution in my way, but of course it will be impossible for me not to repeat at least in some small measure, a superlative or two that have been offered up by writers both great and anonymous who’s eyes have been lucky enough to gaze upon Venice’s illustrious facades.

Like Florence its hard to put into words the feeling one has arriving in this city. Venice is the birth place of Opera, and being here it’s easy to understand why. My heart immediately began to beat faster the second I realised that the train from Padova was leaving the mainland and stretching out like a spider’s web across the pail turquoise waters of the archipelago. It may seem cheesy, but I returned my iPod music selection to a collection of arias of some of Opera’s great pieces, but when combined with the view the two fit perfectly.

I think music is the only medium that can evoke Venice’s texture effectively, I felt an over whelming compulsion to sing, and no I have not lost my mind; I like to sing for a hobby and it’s a passion, and there have been some years invested with a little classical training, but I can honestly say that Venice is a place where you could sing and not feel embarrassed. The air here is caressingly soft, it undulates and ripples across the face and is scented by the briny waters that lap charmingly at the canal sides. All before have spoken of the light, but truly Venice has a light of its own. The light in Florence is crisp and clear in the day, providing wonderful contrasts of light and shadow, mellowing to a light gold in the evenings. Venice’s light appears more like a water-colour, it’s soft and powdery, the mood of it always changing.

The Rialto Bridge over Venice's Grand Canal.

The Rialto Bridge over Venice’s Grand Canal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arriving to my hostel in the early evening, after being shown to my room at the Al Tromonto Darato in the area of Arsenale, I thought it best to have a shower and nap, meaning to stroll along the canals in the evening. I slept for an hour, got ready, and I anticipated that the light would change. What I didn’t know was how dramatically it would do so. The twilight had turned the waters to a deep Topaz blue, complementing the glow coming from the lamps that is much more akin to candle light, rather than the harsh phosphorescent glare you see on London streets. Colour seems to ooze out of the very buildings themselves, and makes even the most grotty ally way take on a theatrical stage lighting. Not all the smells are pleasant here, and in peak season it’s supposed to be worse, but there were none too unpleasant, and the odd ‘whiff’ was far and few between.

Visiting this place has only confirmed for me all the stronger, that Venice is the perfect setting to stage two of my novel’s characters dramatic escape. Apart from the main square the city is a warren of little ally ways, nooks and crannies. A deep breath has to be taken to venture down several of the darkest ones, especially when a concerned tourist or curious resident looks on, almost reproachfully for turning into what seems to be a dead-end corner, only for it to open out again into something new and have the echo of one’s footsteps be lost again in a huddle of people.

All the documentaries that I have seen, or things I have read about Venice over the years speak of its mystery. Yet again these romantic overtones are not an overstatement. The mystery here is palpable, one only has to turn two corners to find bits that are totally deserted with not a soul to be seen. I’m told that there is no crime in Venice and indeed it feels very safe, but it takes no leap of the imagination to create dangerous cloak and dagger scenes, being pursued by dark and masked enemies. If the residents were so inclined there would be few places to run, as a dead-end could halt your escape, or be faced with drowning in one of the many canals. Venice is safe, but when the city was dangerous once upon a time, I can think of no better place for the devious Pimpernel?

In my attempt to avoid the horrendous prices I was advised to get my food shopping in Padova, turns out tonight there has been little need, as I found a very reasonably priced slice of pizza, which I had with a little ice cream. I thought I would be leaving Italy as light as a feather, but I can already feel that I’m gaining the pounds, and without my London cycling about the place I will have to be careful! I cannot sing the praises of Venetian food just yet, as it’s very hard to avoid the tourist tat that lurks on every corner, but I have faith in the local markets where the locals shop, and in truth it’s only there or in a Trattoria known to the locals where you would get what a local Venetian would recognise as food.

I will begin y day with an early start, to both get the free breakfast, and sample a little of the morning’s light. Whether or not there will be mist at this time of year remains to be seen, naturally I’m hoping so, and wishing to wake up to something closely resembling a Turner painting. It may seem like a foolish wish, but thus far on this trip everything has looked like it does in iconic paintings, so I don’t see the point in expecting it not too anymore. I will see what the day brings tomorrow.


For two wonderful days I have been in the home, the mother land of that illustrious episode in the time of the western perspective and mind that we collectively refer to as the Renaissance. It’s almost difficult to put into words the sheer glory of this place, and glory, splendor and beauty are all superlatives that get over used when describing Florence and Tuscany as a whole, but then when one travels here and sees the display for one’s self, it’s instantly understood to the very depths of the heart, spirit and soul why these things are said.

A definition of depilated Beauty: The Birth of...

A definition of depilated Beauty: The Birth of Venus (1486), by Sandro Botticelli. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a depth, a richness of form and coherent structure to Florence that is breath-taking. The city seems to be an assembly line of one beautiful thought after another. Painting, sculpture and architecture are all gracefully blended together, and were clearly all conceived at the same time. All is designed to complement and flatter, all looks to be as is it should, no matter how ornate or grand. Although the objects are many hundreds of years old the city is not dated, its still living, breathing and serving it’s function. This is so refreshing in comparison to the sterile steel and glass boxes that we are encouraged to admire in other parts of the world, where some empty void is asked to be filled by some random piece of art that has no relationship to the structure in which it finds itself housed.

Harmony conceived on this scale is just humbling, and hundreds of years later the great patronage of the Medici and other notable families are still showing the world how these things should be done. Florence makes London (sparing it’s own glories) look like a ramshackle, incoherent bag lady looking for a bargain at a jumble sale. I have read on several occasions the lamentations of critics that specialise in the realms of architectural taste bemoan the lack of vision with London’s modern city planning, at the time I gave a gentle nod of agreement, now my head shakes vigorously! London needs to get its act together urgently, Florence has barely changed externally for at least a hundred years, save for some restoration work here and there, and tasteful internal modernisation of utilities, yet still effortlessly outshines the beauty of London, Paris and New York put together, just as Botticelli’s the birth of Venus outshines the other great paintings in one of the rooms at the Uffizi.

After Berlin I arrived in Pisa before my planned later arrival in Florence, and as I trudged up from Pisa train station with my luggage to the Campo dei Miracoli, I was chastising myself for being so head strong, and not doing the sensible thing of dropping off in Florence and then coming back on another day. When I eventually reached the famed site (after getting a little lost) the sight that greeted me was of such splendor that I briefly didn’t feel the weight of my bags, and self-criticism ended instantly. ‘Field of Miracles’ is an accurate description of this place, you turn the corner and your jaw just drops to let out an exclamation of sheer wonderment! In the limpid sunshine the monuments gathered there the Duomo, the Composanto (the cemetery) and the Leaning Tower glow a brilliant white, and seem to be made more of bone, porcelain or ivory than bricks and mortar, and appear almost weightless as they sit crisply on the vivid green grass.

Inside the Duomo the richness of the sculpture, wood carvings, altar and frescoes is almost ridiculous, and again one’s mouth is used for catching flies. The Composanto is just gorgeous, and I have never seen death represented so luxuriously, there was one notable grave that was literally draped with the sensuous form of what must of been a likeness of Aphrodite, giving a pose to rival that of a Vogue model. The resting place was transformed from somber grave of some august nobleman, to something closer to a chaise long in the bed chamber of a seductive mistress. I’m confident that Georgian or Victorian visitors on tour would of blushed for many reasons at the suggestiveness of the marble curves.

Of course a person cannot talk of Pisa without mentioning the leaning tower, it really is a sight to behold, and at a far more jaunty angle then I at first thought it would be. Thankfully due to many hundreds of tonnes of lead weight added to the foundations, the leaning is no longer continuing, and the attraction is now safe to the public. However it must be said that for those with a slight fear of heights (like myself) there are a few hair-raising moments in the assent when two hands to hold on are required! There is a crucial bit in the assent when you are basically on the very brim of the leaning side of the tower, before the final ascent to the crown while under the full effects of gravity, with only a wrought iron bar and some extremely narrow steps to cling to for safety. Do not look down at this point! I did twice and felt I was going to faint on both occasions, better to ignore where you are and not imagine one’s self rolling off the side like a human marble, gut wrenching! Once at the top however you realise that braving the feelings of doom and danger were totally worth it, and self chastisement and quiet swearing to the self is extinguished instantly by the view! And what a view. Literally the rolling hills of Tuscany lie before you in majestic beauty, looking just like all the paintings that seem too stylised and romantic to be real, and then you look and see for yourself that the vision is both wholesome and true. The only view that can rival the view from the top of the leaning tower in my opinion is the one from the top of the copula of the Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. This view overlooking the city, has to be one of the best of my life, and even the most hard-line atheist would find it hard not to raise a prayer to God or some other heavenly entity when faced with its sight. It’s nothing short of a spiritual experience to describe the elation for me upon reaching the summit of the Copula, especially as visually (and therefor narratively) you have to walk past the depictions of Hell and Heaven painted inside the dome on the way up. The painting of the inside of the dome is mind-boggling!

Genius is a word that is often used too liberally to ascribe sanctity upon that which does not deserve the accolade of art, literature, architecture or even comedy that truly transcends the grasp of mundane reality. The painting of this dome (as well as all the other miracles that abound in this place) is truly an act of illustrious Genius, it cannot be called anything else, the scope of the achievement is truly humbling to behold, and I would hope that I would be able manifest three crumbs of work in my whole life that could compare to such epic art, that frightens, enthralls and dazzles in equal measure. I could not help but run my hand admiringly above the protective plastic in the dome and touch the master work for myself, like a pilgrim to some holy relic to feel imbibed by the master piece, and hope that a little of it could find yet more life in me and all those that gaze upon it. It was a truly wonderful experience that will never be forgotten for as long as I live.

The more every day factors like describing the food, wine and ice cream of the city will have to be left for another entry, as these deserve an entry for themselves.

Today I leave for Padua and Venice, where no doubt I will be dazzled yet again, although churning mass of tourists in Venice do detract from the experience I’m told (and of course I’m only adding to the problem by visiting myself) but it has to be experienced so I and the city will have to bear it. As everything has proved thus far on this adventure, effort will be totally worth it!


Rubik's Cube variants from 2×2×2 all the way t...

Rubik’s Cube variants from 2×2×2 all the way to 7×7×7. Inspired by Rubik’s cube variations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well what a day I’ve had. Last night I got my first taste of the true night life this dynamic city has to offer. Each day reveals yet more little gems to discover. I’m convinced that navigating the city is similar to the experience of a Rubik’s Cube. The city seems like a continuous succession of ally ways that lead to portals of new experiences, the aesthetic here is very definite in my mind. Patchworks of colour are provided by the lurid graphics of the Graffiti, that adorn the texture of exposed brick works that protrude from the buildings like an Egon Schiele ribcage. Fabric hangs draped from the walls, illuminated by a chandelier that resembles an ethereal Jelly fish. The smoke that regularly diffuses the air of the clubs and the enclosed spaces here, allows a strobe light to trike it’s path clearly into a corner where a community of candles will cradle the light in a golden glow.

The darkness itself seems to have an almost velvety quality, it holds none of the pointed threat that one may feel in an unfamiliar part of London, it’s more as if one is embraced by the night here, and the Berlin people seem not to be shy of the hug, and return it’s affections warmly.

Berlin’s beauty is not in it’s shine, but in it’s lived in shabby chic. Especially at night the whole city seems to take on the persona of a faded theatre set, slightly neglected but very loved. This love of the rough edge, which I guess has accumulated in the collective consciousness of a city that has long been associated with the Avant-garde and louche living, has preserved the city and thus far protected it from the cynical exploitation, and commercialisation that one finds so common in London and other cities that try to ‘cash in’. This gives Berlin a remarkable freshness. In it’s willingness to be unaffected by a self conscious need to put it’s best foot forward, the partial decay is all part of it. The pretty and the not so pretty live happily together, and glance at one another without shame or embarrassment.


So I have completed my first day in Berlin. I will keep this post very short as I accidentally deleted my original response in the attempt to upload a photo, much to my distress… the original ‘flow’ of the original article has been lost. None the less I will continue; Berlin is a place of rich and contrasting visual textures, in the short time I have been here I already have a clear idea of how I wish the Berlin section of my book to look. Old town house sits happily alongside an urban housing block, all woven together with a mixture of Graffiti and posters that encase Berlin like a colourful tapestry.

With it’s easy going pace, and accommodating artistic nature it’s easy to see why so many are coming to live here, and in doing so adding their own flavour to to the cultural melting pot. Sitting here it’s tempting to entertain ideas of having a studio somewhere around Neukolln where I’m currently staying, with Berlin’s sheer cultural diversity, combined with very affordable prices it doesn’t feel so much as a flight of fancy, but a real and achievable thing. A little money goes a long way in this city. So maybe in future I will do what others have done… work away in London over the winter, them come and spend my summers here, enjoying all of the delights the city has to offer?


Berlin with Graffiti


Well! The Master Class has happened, and as promised now is the time to write about it. Basically it was fascinating.

Firstly Mr Kureishi himself… quite an aura about him, commanding and incisive, and not afraid to let a silence linger in the air, but at the same time willing to squeeze the group just hard enough to get the olive pip to release its oil. That’s a flowery way to say it but I think it describes the experience very well. The class was made up of an assortment of characters including myself, approximately twelve of us sitting in a stretched semi circle on black swivel chairs. The class was a combination of writers who wrote quite a bit in the past, writers that are writing now but not creatively, myself writing my first novel, and others exploring creative writing for the first time. Mr Kureishi sat at one end, near the door of the small office room of Somerset House, and I found myself (at a distance) sitting opposite him.

I can’t remember quite how it happened but Hanif asked the group about what they felt were the barriers to writing. Slowly but surely members offered up their fears, and allot of the answers were really interesting. The fear of being misunderstood, not feeling that one’s writing was of value, who was the writer writing for, and should the writer be writing for anyone at all, not knowing where to start or find the right words etc. What emerged from this, especially with Hanif being very generous describing his own struggles, was what a risky business being a writer is.

I offered to the group that I found writing a very liberating experience, allowing me to paint with words, and that writing was a voyage into the unknown with many unexpected surprises (like suddenly inventing something you never knew your were going to create) … I felt I was running the risk of being shot down on this or being seen as a ‘willow the whisp’ type of character, but my observation was generously supported by both the group and Kureishi. He told us that that’s exactly how it should feel, and that writing a good book is about a series of shocks and surprises that keeps the reader engaged. He mentioned with his own work using the example of My Beautiful Launderette, that it was a complete shock when the two male characters of the famous screen play started kissing. It was a revelation to him which totally changed the narrative. Said screen play went on to be nominated for several prestigious awards including an Oscar. Hearing little things like that give me extra comfort that I’m on the right track with my writing, and although I had already excepted the surprises, it was very reassuring to know that it was a thing that should be happening and just continue to go with it.

What was most interesting of all in the session was hearing other people’s writing. After an hour or so, Hanif gave us a 45 minute project to create a character, we were to wonder around Somerset House and to come back with something, some words to describe and bring them to life. It was a challenge that got my heart beating, and I spent the first 20 minutes of the exercise drinking a coffee and eating a slice of Carrot cake. I decided to write about a corrupt Catholic Cardinal I created called Andrea Marco Osini (middle name now Pietro which was my original choice but I was not a 100% sure if it was a valid Italian name). I literally had to make him up on the spot because he is one of the characters from my novel that I have not fully met yet, I was expecting to write about him in more depth next month while away on my research trip, but the time pressure of the 45 minute exercise meant that we had to be ‘formally introduced’ and this introduction was then shared with the group. Explaining to the group, that this was just a vignette, without a wider narrative context here’s what I managed to come up with:

‘The Corrupt Cardinal’

Cardinal Andrea Marco (Pietro) Osini, a ruthlessly ambitious Cardinal of middle age wishing to unseat Pope Urban VIII from his papacy.

A 1627 portrait of Pope Urban VIII by Pietro d...

A 1627 portrait of Pope Urban VIII by Pietro da Cortona. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

…Cardinal Osini is a stout man of medium height. His dark olive skin was deeply furrowed at the brow above a chaotic pair of untamed eyebrows, with a forehead that arched into a dome of polished skin closely flanked by the bristles of his coarse greying hair. His eyes were narrow, but a vivid green with Amber flecks that effortlessly emanated a quiet malice and suspicion. Any person talking with him, except for the most experienced, could not help unconsciously adjust their pose to a more defensive or protective one. All who met Cardinal Osini instinctively knew that he was a man that was never to be crossed, but the Cardinal knowing the impression he gave, had learned to smile and let his eyes shine to the extent that all previous worries were dispelled, until it was too late…

I read this to the group, a little worried what everyone would think of something cobbled together in 20 minutes, without my usual refining and editing, but I was told it was very good by both Kureishi and the group.

I was asked if I was a Catholic, told it was very visual/film like and created a picture in the mind, and Kureishi asked if it was autobiographical! Hehe… I replied that almost all the characters we create are autobiographical to an extent, and that I was not a Catholic, but went to a Christian primary school and I’m fascinated by religions.

All those that got read out their work, wrote things that were really interesting, quite long in all cases and involving other characters. One of the moments that was most informative and revealing for the group was a woman who read out her character. It was a character that talked constantly about herself with dull and bland things that never ended… it was revealed that this character was in fact a colleague, and it was presented as a one-sided narrative. What the writer had not realised was that the passive and silent character, that complained inwardly about the selfishness of the colleauge was revealed in greater detail by not saying anything. She was shocked by how much she revealed to the group about herself as a writer by actually being silent, to the extent that Kureishi said that he felt sorry for the colleague that she was tortured into talking all the time! This was a revelation to her, which touched on a previously discussed fear of ‘revealing the self’ which she herself immediately identified… sometimes a character can be most revealing when they say nothing at all.

The session soon came to an end, with the group chattering away… a few of us congregated after agreeing that our emails should be shared, and sitting in the sunshine yet another fascinating conversation emerged about the potential struggles of having a mixed parentage (in the example of Kureishi). This lead to all sorts of information being shared, and all I can say is that I still and always will continue to find people fascinating.

We have a loose agreement to meet in the future and check on everyone’s writing, needless to say, if this should happen I will write about it here.


British Pakistanis

British Pakistanis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In keeping with prior posts in mentioning what I feel is significant, I almost forget to write that I’m to attend a Master class in creative writing at the Royal Society of Literature!

With some considerable luck I have managed to book myself a place in a class being given by the celebrated writer Hanif Kureishi CBE. I have no idea what to expect, God forbid I should have to read my work aloud (but I will take my key fob just in case!) but I’m full of curiosity of how others, especially writers of note go about their writings?

I’m already 12,000 words into my first ‘children’s’ novel, and those two chapters and front cover (‘Illawara’s Adventures in Starlight’, please reference my previous entry) are currently doing the rounds at the book fairs. Firstly Bologna (in March just gone) and very soon the London Book Fair (16-18th of April). I have discovered that I’m a very fast writer, which is not what I was expecting. What I have found to be a frustration is the near constant compromise of time inflicted by necessity! Day jobs can be pleasurable, and immensely informative as mine have continued to be, but they do take up time! Due to this I will not have much time to write again until I’m away on my short research trip in May (funded by said day jobs) but more will be written about my exploits in Berlin and Florence in a future post.

Coming back to the subject of this blog, I really do not have the foggiest idea of what to expect from Mr Kureishi? In my research I learn that he is controversial as well as celebrated. Reading his Wiki entry is intimidating to say the least, and I did have to gather myself a little when contemplating receiving knowledge from someone so accomplished. However I’m undeterred and ready to learn! I feel the timing could not be better, a chance to sip from a well of knowledge before I embark on my miniature odyssey, will be of great assistance. I greatly suspect the way I go about things is highly unconventional, I could be wrong of course, but most writers that I have read about have had every morsel of research done before they write the novel. Not so in my case! Due again to time and necessity the writing and the research are happening at the same time!

What will come out of this approach I have no idea, even though the full novel I’m writing is already plotted out, I have already been ambushed by the narrative surprises of my work thus far, let alone what will happen when I’m ‘on location’! Somehow a journalistic approach has and will creep into this novel, and I hope that will continue to add colour and vivacity. I will literally building my narrative based directly on what I experience on location that day, any discovery could take the narrative in any direction? I could end up with a very different book than I have intended, and the deeper themes and struggles that I anticipate emerging have already surprised me. What others and Kureishi get up to in their work remains to be seen? I will take note with keen interest.

Needless to say I will write back with a verdict in the next couple of days and share what I have discovered. Now I must be getting off to bed, 10:30am start at Somerset House in the morning!


Image

The front cover to my new book, as both illustrator and author.

Good heavens!

It has been practically an ice age in internet terms since I last write a blog post, I really must improve. For all those that know me personally, it could hardly be believed that I would pass up the opportunity to have a discussion, but blogging is still not a natural medium for me, and I feel it only necessary to write when something genuinely interesting has happened?

One such example was my recent visit (Feb 28th) to Linton Mead primary school in Thames Mead, where I spoke to four classes about the process an illustrator goes through to illustrate a book. The visit was organised by Stephen Terry who teaches some of the year groups at the school, as part of World Book Day, and I was one of the people he asked to come along.

It was a very rewarding day, but extremely tiring! Speaking to four separate classes was a bit epic for me, and the enthusiasm expressed by the children was almost over whelming, a rich jingle jangling clamor of voices and little people, vying for attention and requesting everything from books, bags and even bodies (the hands and wrists) to signed. There were volleys of questions to deal with, ranging from if I had met J.K Rowling, or Jacqueline Wilson and all their other favourite authors (it is when one is faced with this you realise again the sheer enormity of such authors) to how old I was, what’s sports I liked and if I had a girlfriend! Thankfully there were plenty of teaching assistants on hand to calm them down, but I could not fail to be impacted by the effect my illustrations had on the classes, they went potty for them.

I had a great time, the children were well behaved (if at times wildly enthusiastic) and I was dropped back off at the DLR station feeling dizzy with quite a head ache!

Coming back to the main title of this blog, and please forgive the earlier tangent (it really should have been a blog of its own?) I will get myself back to the subject of Emperors and Elephants. Serendipity is a wonderful thing, and it seems somehow in the great cosmos up there, that some divine order makes it it’s business to weave together the like-minded in an ever colourful tapestry? Why do I say this?

Well, it is my intention that my future third book be written about the elephant Boronia (see images on blog listings for reference) and she is to be based in the ancient city of Varanasi (or Banares if your ‘old skool’) in India. This place has been around for about 4000 years and is understandably considered the cultural and spiritual capital of India, a great setting one would think, but where do you begin if one has never been to Varanasi let alone India! This daunting prospect has been a concern for me for quite some time, I not only need to go there and face a huge culture clash, and ‘Deli Belly’ but I also for this future book need to find out great details about the great and mysterious Maharajahs.

The elegant answer came with a talk that was given this Tuesday (March 27th) at The Royal Geographical Society. It was co hosted by Love brand & Co and the Elephant Family Charity (follow the link on blog for reference). Some of the proceeds from my first book ‘The Ethical Elephants’ (as the illustrator) go towards supporting the charity, so I thought attending a talk supported by them would be an opportunity to learn more of what they do. It was a very pleasant evening… forgive me for forgetting the name of the host who introduced the speakers, he’s a very well-known dashing adventurer and broadcaster, been in all sorts of scrapes, name sounds a bit like ‘Benedictine’ and he at one stage, while starving was forced to eat his dog. The adventurer turns out to be the Godson of one of the writers who was giving the talk, a historian called Charles Allen. Charles was accompanied by the rather formidable Mark Shand, also an author and the founder of the Elephant Family, they made quite a double act. Allen being scholarly and accurate, and Shand something akin to roaring Lion and Blunderbuss.

Getting to my point, it turns out that Charles Allen has written a book called ‘Ashoka; The Search for India’s Lost Emperor’ what a stroke of luck! There before my eyes were two towering vessels of knowledge precisely in the areas where I lacked. After the entertainments of the talk, and then the auction of designer made ‘Elephant blankets’; where Shand bossed the crowd into ever larger donations, I wasted little time to make my acquaintances. After a quick self introduction and chin wag with the Director of Elephant Family (the very glamorous, and nice Ruth Powys) I joined the line to have my Ashoka book signed by Allen, as well as one of my illustrations for Illawara (included in this blog) and the copy of my Ethical Elephants book, as it’s nice to have something signed by such an established historian (over titles).

Allen in particular was very nice (and most complimentary) like Ruth, kindly volunteering his business card, and suggesting (rather ominously) that I ask what questions I can as he ‘…wont be around for much longer…’ whatever he could have meant by that is a mystery, but although getting along time wise, he hardly seemed in the clutches of the jaws of death. Comment aside, hopefully he will be around to offer possible assistance in the future when it falls to me to begin my own journeys in India? I sincerely hope so, advice such as his will be much-needed.


It is often said that writing things down can be cathartic and a form of therapy? Well to see if it is true, I write here in the blogosphere to alleviate myself a little, and to share an insight recently gained into the darker workings of the human mind.

It is said that to truly know someone you must live with them… in this I agree but will also add another two categories that not only yield quicker results, but their authenticity is harder to disguise, these are ‘the holiday’ and the ‘board game’. Of the latter I cannot speak highly enough of it’s unfailing ability to reveal the dark and dank parts of the character, that are either denied or forcibly repressed. Anyone who has witnessed the unsavoury backstabbing, plea bargaining, bribery and sheer avarice in the previously placid company of family and friends (whom you thought you knew well) after a game of Monopoly will know what I speak of?

As the title of this blog would suggest it aims to discuss what can happen when humble bits of card and board, with rules and tokens are put together. I’m not writing here to discuss Monopoly, as myself and my board gaming friends have moved far beyond the warm ‘red’ spectrum of more humble games such as this… we now occupy a space in blazing Ultra Violet (and its implied health considerations) where few can tolerate the harsh conditions.

It is said that person should not sniff glue, as it would inevitably lead to a progression ending in harder drug use. Well the same can be said of board games, and we are already ruined! More modest games like Scrabble, Mouse Trap, and Trivial Pursuit can barely stimulate a response from the hardened gamer, just as it is hard to get excited by a glass of water. They are of course the basics of which it’s hard to do without, but once one has tasted the seductive and dangerous cocktails offered by more challenging games naivety is at an end, well almost, until last Wednesday that is.

The game in question among many others that I enjoy playing with my friends in this instance, is a game called ‘Power Grid’. A deceptively unassuming title that would barely raise the eyebrow of a novice. To the seasoned campaigner however this is a game of quite some taste. In the aim of protecting their privacy I cannot name my gaming friends directly, and there is another loose group that play at many levels. This blog will focus on two in particular, together with myself making the ‘formidable Three’. We represent the hard-core, and orbit each other like gas giants, and if a match should be lit then the mix can be highly combustible!

Now these two ‘Gas Giant‘ friends of mine, let’s call them Uranus and Saturn (I would classify myself as Jupiter if I may, but I’m sure upon them reading this it will be disputed?) are two of the most conniving and cunning ‘so-and-so’s’ it’s been my fortune to come across (there is one more but he is currently AWOL on a nomadic journey around the world). Over the years I have closely observed their often brilliant wickedness at close quarters. This is not for the faint hearted! Seeing such things can change you as a person, and shake you to the very foundations of what you thought possible for a human being to contrive! None the less, after many years of swimming with sharks I have come to learn their ways and behaviors. What flanks to avoid, which teeth are the sharpest and what meat it likes to eat, to the extent that I have even managed to win a game or two in recent months, and can now even emerge from the cesspool with pride in hand and reasonably intact. This was not the case last Wednesday!

HST image of Uranus showing cloud bands, rings...

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I mentioned Power Grid, and I hinted at other more challenging games, there is Steam, Agricular, A Brief History of the World to name but a few. This was not an ordinary game of Power Grid on this occasion as we were playing with a new expander pack, having exhausted the other maps based on America and Germany. Last Wednesday we tried out a new board set in Russia. I should of recognised the omen, especially as something akin to a bleak Russian winter was inflicted upon me by Uranus and Saturn.

Like the various tides of history within Russia, some of it starts off well, and indeed so did I. But like all the best Russian stories the veneer of calm starts to crack and fall off, harsh realities are revealed, and find yourself beckoned to the Gulag! This is what happened to me. This was all the more disturbing considering I was doing a very good job of elegantly repressing my opponents, making my moves both swiftly and efficiently, and quietly enjoying the well rehearsed howls of anguish that are frequently offered up (which I have learned to ignore) while I built up my war chest to blitz the board.

For the uninitiated, Power Grid is a game where you have to power as many homes as you can by buying a selection of power stations and their required resources to do so. Oil, Coal, Rubbish, Uranium and Wind power which is  free after the set up cost. Towns and cities where homes can be built have a three tiered cost, 10, 15, and 20 coins (depending which phase you are in) and this fee is paid as well as the connection charge to reach that city, which could be cheap or very expensive. A player can only place one of their own colour in each city. One can quickly see the complications… however I was happy, I had two oil power stations that were not expensive to maintain, and one Uranium plant, that only needs one unit per term to power it… while Uranus was heavily leveraged in oil and swapping barrels between power plants, Saturn was lamenting taking yet another sip from the poisoned Challis that is the Rubbish plants and was firmly in last place, while I sat contentedly and raked the money in watching my cash pile grow closer to the ceiling. This contentment did not last!

Having thought I had seen it all from my fidgeting opponents, I was completely unawares as to the depths of depraved scheming I had pushed them both to. Subconsciously the two had twinned into a united front to unseat me from power. As what can usually happen with flat mates, the ability to anticipate behaviour becomes accentuated even if both are not consciously aware of it. Intimidated by my vast wealth, each independently reached into a fetid pool of a shared subconscious, and read verse together from the book of dark arts. Remembering their wicked incantations they returned to unleash an attack of almost debauched ferocity. In one devastating move Saturn delivered an avalanche of house building to take him within the cusp of winning. Barley leaving a space on the board unmolested, his hands were a blur of activity, as house after house, after house was laid in a virtual pandemic of frenzied building, the likes of which have not been seen in Britain since the late 50’s. Such was the torrent of connection charges and fees, that this normally numerate investment banker had to call on the calculator for assistance! With barely time to draw a ragged breath in horror, Uranus then unleashed a fury on the board of near identical proportions, like a horseman of the Apocalypse to complete the ravishment!

Natural color view of Saturn, composed from a ...

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Needless to say I was thoroughly shocked and feeling quite abused. In one move I was ruthlessly dispatched into last place, much to the cackling joy and uncomfortable smirks of my opponents, one resembling a deranged Hyena and the other a starved Piranha! I on the other hand had gone from graceful, and enigmatic Swan to a lame half plucked Duck with a tire mark running through it! Barely able to stir myself from my shell shock, and trying to stitch together my tattered pride, I reached the required number of 17 houses like the others (due to my funds) but I could only power 11 of them.

This I vow to never let happen again! It will be difficult. As much as I dearly love the two gas giants, never will I think that any board game mercy lies hidden within their rancid little hearts! I’m left with not choice but to unleash the dark side and beat them at their own game? I once gave Saturn a lifeline previously when we were playing a game called ‘Brass’ (a microcosm of the British Industrial revolution) for the first time. He wildly gambled, was far too heavily leveraged, up to the eye balls in debt, with no meaningful income and living up to every recent stereotype of his banking profession. I mercifully protected him from a move that if unleashed by Uranus (which he was fully willing to do) would of meant bankruptcy and certain death, which I thought was harsh considering it was the first time we had all played the game. I shouldn’t have bothered!

Just as in current reality give a banker a lifeline and a bail out, he will not remember your kindness, forget you exist, go on gambling and then screw you over!

Well now my lesson is thoroughly learned. From now on its operation ‘No Mercy’ and I have every intention to wreak sweet revenge on my fellow Gas Giants, action resumes this Sunday. As usual we will share a delicious meal, wine will flow, and a pudding will be revealed to sweeten the mood while in the throes of a difficult crux in the game. It will be dignified, to start with. Rest assured the war correspondence will be detailed here next week, I hope I make it out alive, I will not be satisfied till I have roasted my pound of flesh. One needs a thick skin and a sharp dagger when you swim with sharks, may the best man win!


Usually a blogger gives a heads up, as to any personally significant events they may be entering or attending, but not me I’m afraid. Sometimes with the rushing about, and juggling that seems to touch the life of almost any large urban dweller, I find as usual, that the event has happened before I have had time to write about it!

 

David Bellamy

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This is one such example. On Saturday the 26th of November 2011, I had the privilege to be invited as a guest sponsor (representing my publisher Conch Press) to a lunch and awards ceremony for the 25th year of The Blake Shield; supported by the British Naturalists’ Association in two of  the beautiful buildings of Clifton College, Bristol.

I confess I did know a great deal about the college before my visit, let alone that it’s a boarding school for both girls and boys, but I could not help but be impressed by the rather august collection of buildings. It felt to me like a little bit of Cambridge had been delicately placed on an outer fringe of Bristol. My role primarily was to sign copies of my illustrated book, which were being given away as part of the prizes in the awards ceremony, in recognition of schools (and often individuals) who have made a contribution with research into our impact on our local environments. Studies ranged from Damage to old trees, Bees, Mill meadows and butterfly conservation. Age ranges were from primary school to 15 years old. It was good fun, and the children seemed to be excited about their awards… all happening under the watchful eye of the diligent Pamela E White, who was at the helm as master or ceremonies.

Within the throng and the clamor, was the evergreen Professor David Bellamy. I have watched him on TV for years, with himself and another famous evergreen Sir David Attenborough being a great inspiration to me whilst growing up. Primarily it was down to these two for my sustained interest in the environment, and it seems these days that there is scarcely a far flung rocky outpost that has not been graced by Sir Attenborough’s presence?

I was introduced to Professor Bellamy over a rather robust lunch, under the vaulted ceilings of the dining hall, which was a curious combination of Hogwarts and school dinners. The shine, clunk and clang, hot trays revealing, peas, carrots or braised chicken all combined to make for a comforting nostalgia. It’s funny how, that even in adulthood seeing the bustling dinner ladies, the Rhubarb crumble and custard can make a me feel 8 years old again, things that I didn’t know I remembered?

David looked of course just like he does on TV, alert and friendly he has the comfort, wisdom and ease that you would expect of a man well traveled (he will soon visit Borneo one of many places again) and grandfather to 10 grandchildren. We spoke a little about the rate that trees were being gobbled up by industry, and he mentioned rather sadly, that whilst traveling to Borneo every other year, that each time he sees more forest felled and more palm trees for the cultivation of palm oil.

On a lighter note a very entertaining anecdote was being told by Roger Tobor (Chairman of the BNA) about his explorations in ‘Cat Cam’. I remember seeing something on the news about it earlier this year, but for the uninitiated, Cat Cam is a video recorder that is attached to a cat’s collar, which is also synced up with Google maps to give a precise location of a roving feline.

The story involved a female cat (for names sake let’s call her Clarissa) who by day, spent her time looking demure and sweet on a windowsill, or draped elegantly over a sofa, whom by sunset would leave the comforts of home to answer the call of the night and engage in antisocial behavoir. It turns out that Clarissa is a tough girl who likes a bit of rough? Not only does she patrol a vast territory (significantly larger than average females, and larger than most males) she defends it with gusto, violently beating up any cat foolish enough to cross her path, which can be several per night (including males) and is apparently a superb fighter, which could suggest why the territory is so vast in the first place. She insists on being fed at the several different houses she frequents as she patrols within her territory, and dare they leave her unsatisfied will also casually engage in raiding the bins. By sunrise she has returned (looking immaculate) to a pampered life and surroundings, with her owners blissfully unaware (until now) of Clarissa’s double life. I digress a little… but it’s great material for stories.

To sum up, I had a great day, especially taking a photo of myself and Professor Bellamy at Bristol Zoo (looking at the big cats I did not know a male Lions roar had so much bass, quite incredible). It’s great to see that a legend like David is still going, and morphing it seems into Botany’s answer to Father Christmas. Let’s hope that he can still continue to give his presents of insight and suggestions long into the future?


I would like to take this opportunity to thank Bhavit Mehta for including me as a reader in the South Asian Literary Festival happening this season. I have greatly enjoyed reading from The Ethical Elephants book at special story telling events for children and their parents, at The Rich Mix just off Brick Lane and the wonderful Discovery Centre in Stratford.

It’s a strange thing, that some how speaking to 200 people is much less nerve wracking than speaking to 50 assembled parents and kids! The little faces looking up in anticipation, and parents expecting to be entertained, quite a challenge, especially when people have paid to see you.
I have found that doing little vocal warm up’s gleaned from various singing lessons over the years was really quite helpful… now I understand very well why you see actors and performers do this before going on stage, public speaking is very, very close to performance… and from now on I shall totally regard it as such, and maybe even embellish a little more, and possibly invest in props!

As I know that I will be doing much more of this sort of thing in the future, this could be a wise investment, but one step at a time, one does not want to become ridiculous.

Thanks again to Bhavit and the The Festival, if anyone is curious please follow this link to their website: http://southasianlitfest.com/


At long last, after more than 3 years of effort, I was able to make good on Quentin Blake‘s prediction, and actually give him a signed copy of my book! Sunday the 25th of September 2011 will always be remembered as a special day for me when this event was finally able to happen.

The Big Draw’s Big Slash was a huge success with over 2000 people attending. Quentin arrived via tug boat from the Canal Museum on the Regents canal, to cut a ribbon suspended between a floating island and the mooring banks of Kings Place, to loud cheers and applause. Myself and my line manager Janice accompanied him to his dressing room, and in that time me and Quentin were able to catch up a little.

Tug boat Agia Varvara at Krakari Jetty, Piraeu...

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Away from the glare of the spotlight I was able to present him my book, which he very much enjoyed and congratulated me on. Then after he had rested a little, we took him to the main foyer, where he drew on a massive sheet of paper within a very large and ornate golden frame, much to the delight of the assembled public.

Various engagements followed where he was asked to do this or that, and in general we were to keep vigilant to protect him against the general clamour. After a couple of hours of this, myself and some others took him through to have his private lunch, and there I was able to take my photo with him. I bade him goodbye and left him free to talk with a young competition winner and his mother. It was a lovely day, and especially nice to have another good conversation  with a great master. Thank you Quentin, and thank you Kings Place.


Kings Place from York Way Original description...

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This coming Sunday the 25th of September I (through a tremendous act of serendipity) will have the chance to present a copy of my illustrated book to Quentin Blake. The event in question is The House of Illustration’s, The Big Draws Big Splash to be held at Kings Place. The ever resourceful and steadfast Quentin Blake will be continuing in his noble efforts to share the joys of illustration with everyone in this free event (for those that are curious please follow the Kings Place link).

Some of you will know that my interview with Quentin (published 2008) lead to me being commissioned to do my first illustrated book (Afindica: The Story of the Ethical Elephants) and it’s this signed copy that I wish to give to him in thanks for accepting the interview in the first place, and effectively starting my career in publishing!

Blake’s personal assistant has informed him that I wish to give him the book and he has accepted (as far as I have been informed). I think it will be wonderful to give him a copy, and would complete in my eyes what has been the first phase in a much longer adventure. He said that he looked forward to seeing my own books in print one day (I thought he was just being kind?) but his wisdom has proved to come true.

Thanks Quentin, you’re a master.


Hampton Court Palace

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Yes I’m back again in the halls of the British Library to dig out little gems and treasures of information, ironically with quite a bit coming from the internet. None the less being here is very conducive to hard study, and I find it easier to get stuck into the more testing work. Today in my efforts I was working on the foundations of Boab’s book, who is the ‘Emperor of Emperors’ who has a home at Hampton Court Palace.

Of course this requires extensive research of the palace, and I feel I have only melted the tip of the proverbial iceberg. However it was enough to produce some solid foundations of the plot and its main characters, the start, middle and end of the book, so I leave here today feeling very satisfied with myself. I then had a good giggle reading the blog of a dear friend who is enjoying his time with adventures across America, with a visit to a far-flung organic farm no less.

He wiles away the time with wine and song, and I dig around to find Norse names for ancient Woolly mammoths. Life can be a funny business?


Yesterday I dropped into the British Library to continue my ongoing research into the life and events of the famous Goddess of love Aphrodite. I’m reading an excellent book by Geoffrey Grigson ‘The Goddess of Love’ published in 1976 which goes into intimate detail of her birth, zenith, fall and rebirth of the Goddess which is a fascinating read.

Antalya Archaeological Museum. Ancient Roman s...

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Why Aphrodite you may ask yourself? The reason for the research is that part of the ‘skeletal’ narrative for the Ethical Elephants is based on the ancient Greek Gods… there are and will be many other influences upon them, including the environment and culture that they are based, but the main ones will be the Greek Gods. Illawara the Empress of the Stars is very strongly influenced by the life of Aphrodite, and her book will have many indirect references to her.

Illawara’s book is set on the islands of Hawaii, because of its connections with astronomy and it’s use of world-class observatories to look at the Sun and interstellar space. I have also researched what I thought were fitting Hawaiian names for each of the characters present in the book, which will be used from time to time as the narrative develops. Hawaii is also a place of breath-taking beauty and quite a fitting place for an Illawara come Aphrodite to live?


What a wonderful weekend I have had. The book launch was a wonderful experience and so much fun. It was great seeing friends, family and a few celebs sprinkled in. The best was book signing for people, and seeing how much pleasure the books seem to give.

A huge thank you to Kings Place for hosting the launch, it went so smoothly.

Another huge thank you to Jeni Barnett of BBC Radio London 94.9FM for interviewing me on her show this morning, so great working with you and so much fun! lol For any one that wishes to listen who is maybe reading this for the first time, I’m introduced at 2:29:30 (seconds)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/p00h9mtn

And if anyone would like to know more about the book please visit:

http://www.afindica.com

Thank you.


Yet another twist in the plot. However order and calm have been restored after what could have been a fatal blow to the launch of the book! Shock horror I hear you gasp, ‘what on earth could it be’. Well… basically The Natural History Museum pulled a fast one on my publisher and priced us off the job! Anyway I will not divulge the detail, but it was quite a naughty move, especially as the books support charity.

Kings Place from York Way Original description...

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Anyway, that is in the past and now the launch will be happening at Kings Place this June… all is back on plan. Kings Place is a wonderful venue, which has been further confirmed by it winning the Gold Prize (Visit London Awards) for best business venue. Being equipped with state of the art recording and sound equipment, two galleries and two concert halls, and being the new headquarters of the Guardian, it is the perfect venue. All of this being a stones throw away from Kings Cross to boot.

I will truly believe it when it all happens, now it’s only a matter of weeks away…


Yellowfin tuna are being fished as a replaceme...

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As I said earlier… things have started to move in an interesting direction for me. I have just had a bit of a break through in regards to the early stages of my marine project. Yesterday, being a member I went to the Marine Conservation Society‘s AGM. It was excellent! Very informative, and I was able to see the ‘official’ handing over of the out going chairman Sir Jeffery Newman to Martin Spray who is now taking up the position. Very nice people indeed. I took a slightly bold move and decided to ask a couple of questions (after introducing myself) in Q&A of how I could go about making a greater contribution with a possible poster campaign, and how else we could contribute to fishermen’s livelihoods while still preserving fish stocks? I was lucky to meet a few of the people in MCS, which was great, very nice people.

Back in the summer this marine concept came up as a book idea when having a chat with Conch Press (my publisher). MCS seem to like the idea of a possible book, so I will pursue it. I felt so inspired that I wrote out the bones of a story (beginning, middle and end) on the bus home!

I have decided that I will continue with my poster idea, as it was also a back up plan to be added to my port folio which I wish to upgrade for the new year, along with other things. This is a new and exciting development, and I look forward to conducting the research. The outgoing chairman’s son happens to be a marine biologist who is a fan of art, it would be great to to ask people like him for tips on the more detailed side of conservation?

I think I will take a serious attempt at writing the story over the Christmas holiday? A challenge but fun too… want to send a big thank you to those who have read my blog so far!


Well it’s been a little while since my last entry… and things have been taking an interesting turn in general… but just to give an update on a previous situation with a slight rodent problem. Well no problem no more! The fury little gluttons have eaten their way to their own demise! I thought I would wait a respectable time before declaring victory, but now after over a month I can finally believe that it is true. I am now mouse free, besides the kitchen is far too cold for them in the winter anyway.