I didn’t make it to Sunderland for If There Ever Was, an exhibition of extinct and impossible smells, for which curator Robert Blackson commissioned 14 strange scents from a team of perfume designers and botanists. Luckily this book released to accompany it brings the smells to me, in the form of paper inserts. The perfumes include a lovely recreated Edwardian scent from the Titanic, a meteorite hitting Peruvian mud, the smell of communism – some kind of institutional soap, I’d guess, with a hint of bleach – and the Mir space station, which it turns out was plagued by “the pungent odour of pickling gym socks”, created by the sweat of vodka-drinking Russian cosmonauts. The rub’n'sniff technology works reasonably well, although one of the smells is so strong it seems to drown out the first few: think it’s the sun’s rays – “hydrogen and helium with a molten cocktail of copper, terbium, strontium, antimony and europium”. Had no idea the sun smelt so terrible.
I’ve just finished reading Corvus: A Life with Birds, a sort of modern equivalent of Len Howard’s Birds as Individuals, in which Esther Woolfson describes her adoption of various corvids, particularly a rook and a magpie. Woolfson’s book is twice as long as it should be and could do with some photographs, but I did learn some interesting bird facts from it:
1. Doves are very aggressive.
2. Crows can recognise the scientists who work with them on a campus of 40,000 people, and will follow them, shouting.
3. Birds can see twice as many colours as humans.
4. If you keep a magpie in the house, be prepared to come home and hear them imitating the voice you use on the phone.
She also has a good account of a martial arts fight between a teenage girl and a magpie, which is not something you read every day.
Ravens Are Watching
Head Trip by Jeff Warren is a fascinating journey into different stages on the daily “wheel” of consciousness. I didn’t even know some of these stages were there: I had a vague awareness that the hallucinogenic state you go into just before falling asleep is called hypnagogic, but not about the hypnopompic stage on the way out, where dreams overlap with reality.
Anyone who suffers from insomnia may find consolation in the section on sleep: Warren suggests lying awake in the middle of the night might be natural or even beneficial. In the days when people went to bed with the daylight, they had a first sleep, then all got up for the ‘stirring hour’ or what Warren calls ‘the Watch’, chatted, had sex, wandered around or just mulled over their dreams, and went back for a second, different sort of sleep in the early hours. When Warren goes off to a remote hut to try the old pattern, he finds his ideas about sleep transformed: “It was a little like finding out that the home you live in is really the exposed bell tower of a vast underground cathedral.”
Of course it’s mainly Western industrial societies who’ve become slaves to the idea of eight hour sleeps – if you’re a member of the Gebusi tribe in Papua New Guinea you never fall asleep at all, for fear of becoming the victim of a prank: “A favourite joke on someone who succumbs consists of dressing up in warfare gear, taking up weapons and screaming at the sleeper. If he starts out of sleep in horrified alarm, convinced he’s about to be killed in a raid, the joke is viewed as an unqualified success.”
I’m always interested in the Guardian’s series on Writers’ Rooms – although what it mainly reveals is what depressing places most writers work in. Far too many books, piles of dusty papers and ugly office furniture. The best ones belong to people like AL Kennedy and Mark Haddon, who’ve noticed that they don’t work in an office and are pretty pleased about it: “My best days do seem like a distillation of all that was best about school. Write a story! Paint a picture! Write a poem! Make a print!” And those like JG Ballard who realise that if you’re writing what you want is not a lot of other people’s stupid books to look at, but pictures. Unless you’re Rudyard Kipling, whose room is dominated by a portrait of his slave-driving wife looking disapproving, which made this grand study “a bit of a prison”.
Room 26 has a great series of photos of writers actually working in their rooms – above, Edith Wharton, who is much more elegant about the whole thing and what’s more is wearing a fantastic print.
Fed by Birds’ workspace is of course quite different, as you see below:
“You could dress up a pigeon in a tiny suit of evening clothes and put a tiny silk hat on his head and a tiny gold-headed cane under his wing and send him walking into my room at night. It would make no impression on me. I would not shout, “Good God almighty, the birds are in charge!” But you could send an owl into my room, dressed only in the feathers it was born with, and no monkey business, and I would pull the covers over my head and scream.”
James Thurber, from The Thurber Carnival
Back from the South of France, with some new vocab – huîtres, hirondelle, bandes desinées – and some spectacular comic books (aimed at the very small, which suits my level of French reading). Luckily this is France, so even books for the tiny are pretty sophisticated. Fennec, by Yoann, is from the stable of Lewis Trondheim, and is the story of a small desert fox looking for a cave of blood (wait, can that be right?)
Anyway, it looks beautiful.
Gedeon Grand Manitou is by Benjamin Rabier, the creator of La vache qui rit.
The plot looks a little involved, but it’s all very charming.
Actually, the first at least is still in print
The copy of this children’s book on Iceland, Lapland and Greenland which I picked up somewhere or other was won by its first owner for Early Morning Sunday School Attendance in 1884. It was published by the Wesleyan Sunday School Union, and the Wesleyan approach seems to have been a gentle and kindly one, using the stories of harsh Northern lives to remind children to “think with warm interest and sympathy of those who have fewer advantages”. It has some interesting insights into Arctic life: after a black bear hunt in Lapland, the bear is taken home on a sledge “and the reindeer that has drawn it is actually so indulged as to be allowed a holiday all the rest of that year”. It also has some beautiful illustrations.