National Poetry Day

Calooh! Callay! Hip hip hooray!
Today is National Poetry Day.
The pundits say one could do worse
Than pen a line or two of verse.
But if originality comes hard,
Then here’s another way to be a bard:
You just create a poem that combines
A mix of other poets’ deathless lines.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills.
All mimsy were the borogoves,
Among those dark satanic mills.
The boy stood on the burning deck,
Beware the jabberwock, my son!
My love is like a red red rose,
Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree.
There’s peace and holy quiet there,
And is there honey still for tea?

That’s twelve lines done. Stick two more on it
And there you go, a blooming sonnet!

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Tarantulas, friends or foes?

Last week I made friends with a tarantula. Jane with tarantula

I’m not making it up, honest. I held a live tarantula in my two hands for several minutes, and survived to tell the tale. Richard and I were visiting Bugtopia, an unusual kind of zoo which specialises in creepy-crawlies of all sorts. From butterflies to scorpions, from centipedes to spiders, there’s a huge selection. Many of them, like the giant tropical butterflies, you can see free-range, in an enormous glasshouse full of plants; others are in cages on view in the warm jungle-type atmosphere. But the best thing, the reason we went, is that visitors can arrange to have hands-on contact with some of the creatures.

In a quiet, dim room, we were the only two visitors for a presentation by one of the zoo’s staff. She was knowledgeable and entertaining and definitely, I felt, a safe pair of hands. She brought several specimens out from their cages to meet us, starting with a couple of cockroaches, impeccably clean although in the wild they prefer dirty places where they can scavenge food remains. Then a stick insect who, unlike the sedentary specimens I remember from school, crawled up my jacket, apparently wondering if I’d make a good tree.

Jane and millipedeNext a millipede; cute and friendly; a relatively small one, who’d have made me a bracelet if she’d chosen to wind round my wrist. The largest millipedes can be as long as your forearm, and no prizes for guessing which animal has won a Guinness Book World Record for having the most legs of any creature on the planet. 750!

Tarantula close-upFinally came the tarantula. I’ll admit I was quite uneasy about this one. I remembered – do you? – that scene in the very first James Bond film, “Dr. No”, where Bond has a tarantula planted in his bed and has to lie still while it crawls up his body. But our spider turned out to be a peaceful pussy-cat. She was a Mexican Red Rump, though as she’s recently shed her skin she wasn’t showing any red. Our instructor passed her carefully to Richard, reassuring us that tarantulas don’t deserve their fearsome reputation. They do NOT kill people. Their bite is unpleasant and may be painful, but not deadly. They are reluctant to attack people anyhow, unless seriously threatened, preferring to escape if they can. If they can’t, they give a series of warning signals, lasting several minutes, indicating “Keep back, I’m a scary monster.” They rear up into a threatening position showing off their fangs; then many of them – including the one we met – follow that up by shooting off bristles from their backs towards their opponent. You wouldn’t want one in the eye, but it wouldn’t kill you, and neither would the weapon of last resort. the less-than-deadly bite.

Eventually I felt reassured enough to take our spider in my hands, watching her warily. She was as good as gold, calm, alert but barely moving. I think she was at ease. I definitely was. I felt I’d made a friend, not endured an enemy. And the whole experience was truly fascinating.

Of course, being a mystery writer, I’ve realised there’s a problem. (A fly in the ointment?) I’ve always assumed that if I ever needed a poisonous spider as a murder weapon in one of my stories, I’d just introduce a tarantula, no explanation necessary because everybody knows. Only in this case what “everybody knows” is wrong. So I’ll have to find another venomous arachnid. There seem to be several candidates: black widow spiders, brown widow ditto, Australian funnel web…how about a crime set in Sydney?

Hmmm. More research needed, I think. Though it absolutely won’t be hands-on!

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Albert Einstein was right

Albert EinsteinOf course he was. I’m certain of it.

“Oh, and you’d know, would you?” I can just hear my sceptical friends mocking. “You, a writer of historical fiction, have the nerve to applaud a genius in physics, about which subject you understand…maybe enough to fit on a very small postcard and still leave room for your signature?”

Well, no, I don’t understand the higher reaches of physics. Even the lower reaches. But scientists who do understand consider Einstein a genius, and that’s good enough for me. More than a century ago he formulated theories about space and time, matter and energy; “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” to quote a different kind of genius. Many of Einstein’s ideas seemed fantastical at the time. Yet many have been proven and are now accepted as true; resulting in (among other things) the development of nuclear power, the discovery of cosmic black holes, and the proof of gravitational waves, which three physicists in the US have just got the Nobel prize for detecting.

And anyway I’m not talking about physics. I’m talking about something even more important.

Imagination.

Einstein wrote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

I was bowled over when I first read these words, coming from one of the greatest scientists of all time. As a fiction writer, I know how essential imagination is; I’d call it one of my most important tools, to be used with care but very often. My novels, set in the long-ago era of Roman Britain, need to be rooted in fact, in “all we now know and understand”, but not limited to that. Our knowledge of Roman times is patchy, ranging from pretty good in some things to virtually non-existent in others. I study what facts are known, because I want to get the historical background right when I’m trying to describe what life was like for people living two thousand years ago. Then, when the trail of facts runs out, I need imagination.

Einstein’s words brought home to me that great scientists aren’t limited to “all we now know and understand” either. These days we’re encouraged to think of scientists as being somehow different from other workers: tied to facts, they construct theories that grow logically, step by step. fact by fact, making a framework like scaffolding supporting a building. So, we conclude, probably there isn’t room for imagination?

Some scientists may conform to this stereotype, but not Einstein. Part of his genius was that he was not limited. He was prepared to think outside the box, as we’d say now. He believed we all should be. And his words should be posted on the wall above every writer’s desk. Correction: posted in every place of work, from lab bench to shop counter, from assembly line to tractor cab, from mineshaft to kitchen to tv studio.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Everywhere.

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