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One is now Hitched...

By the Bee's Royal Correspondent, Andrew Gorton.

“Are you following the Royal Wedding today?” I asked the Scottish manager of my Norfolk village shop when I popped in on the day of the event. 

“Why should I celebrate a family that raped and pillaged my family and forced them out of their country?” he replied, less than half-jokingly. “I've spoken with family in the Highlands, and their kids are not having a day off school there.”

This has probably been the only passionate, albeit negative, reaction to the Royal Wedding I have encountered so far. The prevailing attitude has seemed to be one of sublime indifference. (When I expressed my own less-than-lukewarm attitude on Facebook, it got several 'Likes.') Everybody is glad for the day off, but that appears to be the extent of their enthusiasm. On the other hand, I hope Wills and Kate have better fortune in married life than Diana had. I think some lessons from that marriage have been well marked for this one. Hopefully there will be no conspiracy theories surrounding this marriage, now or in the future. I'm fairly certain that Charlie is not planning to bump off his new daughter-in-law at some point in the next few years. Personally, I'm surprised there isn't a theory that says Diana and Dodi faked their own deaths and are living anonymously in South America with Shergar and Lord Lucan, or something. I am half-tempted to try and circulate that one, to see how many people buy it.

Across the pond, the Americans seem far more fascinated and enthused by the Royal Family than us Brits. (Certainly many of them seem to believe the “Diana was murdered” theory.) Considering that their nation was born as a result of successful revolution against the British Monarchy, it seems rather an odd attitude to have, exactly the opposite side of the coin to my Scottish acquaintance. Maybe it is the fact that the Scots failed in their uprising where the Americans succeeded that explains the difference? I'm not sure. Certainly the Scottish clans suffered more at the hands of the English kings than the American colonists.

In my opinion, the modern Royal Family are just another aspect of celebrity culture, but with more pomp and tradition. I am inclined to view this wedding as no different, really, than any other  celebrity wedding, although with slightly more gravitas. There are certainly the screaming crowds and an overemphasis on what everybody is wearing, and inane waffle from news commentators.  To be fair on the other hand, none of the Royals, with the possible exception of Kate, sought nor possibly desire their status in the public eye. I could sympathise with Prince Harry when he was pulled from front-line duty in Afghanistan. It must be frustrating not being able to do the job you wanted to to, and had undergone rigorous training for, just because of who your parents are. Also, watching films like The Kings Speech does humanise them for me.

Watching bits of the event today on the telly, I am sure it was not always like this for the royals. I have a picture in my head of the Saxons marching off to fight the Battle of Hastings to hysterical public adulation, with vapid commentary on Armour by Ralph de Lauren, and speculation on whether Harold is going bald under his Jeffrey of Portman Helmet. Then, a few days later, tabloid hysteria of this new bloke, William the Conqueror's questionable taste in interior decoration or something. 

It is possible history may go full circle and the Royals will become more than just figureheads, but it is unlikely. I am sometimes prone to the cynical belief that this is pretty much a Bread-and -Circuses event, but in the end, I am sure it is a harmless and much needed diversion from an otherwise grim couple of years. 

A Conversation with Mark Robson

If you've attended a UK secondary school during the past ten years there's a high likelihood that you've met Mark Robson, author of rip-roaring fantasy adventures and a tireless and inspiring teacher and speaker to schools and book-groups.  He started out publishing his own books (the high fantasy Darkweaver Legacy quartet) before Simon and Schuster picked up his Imperial sequence set in the same world.  Then came the Dragon Orb quartet, about teenage dragon-riders in another fantasy world, who occasionally fly through a dimensional rift into our own circa 1918, resulting in some smashing dragons-vs-triplane action over the Western Front.  

His latest, The Devil's Triangle is the first of a trilogy about the Bermuda Triangle, the area of sea between Florida and Bermuda where bats and aircraft are supposed to go missing more frequently than they do over other large patches of sea...  In Mark's story the disapearees find themselves on a parallel Earth where mammals never caught on and the dominant species are a race of highly evolved velociraptor types.

Philip Reeve: Like Roald Dahl and Captain W.E Johns, you've made the leap from RAF pilot to children's author.  How did that come about?

Mark Robson: It was a strange chance that set me writing.  I was down in the Falkland Islands on detachment in July 1996 and the weather that year was particularly bad.  We were getting 80mph winds with heavy snow that was actually getting through the roofing and settling in the corridors!  There was no way we could fly in those conditions and I got very irritable as I hate being idle.  I annoyed my navigator so much with my grumpiness that one morning he snapped at me, “For goodness’ sake, Mark!  Do something useful.  Go write a book, or something!”

What he really said was a bit more colourful than that, but it would be inappropriate to repeat the actual language here!  I’ve always loved a challenge and having always been a prolific reader, I’d often thought It would have been great if the character had done this, or if the author had twisted the story in a different way here. Why not write a book?  All I needed was paper, a pencil and some time… all of which were available in abundance.  I told Arnie (the Navigator) that I would write the first chapter to a book and if he liked it, I would write the rest.  I’ve never looked back. 

Philip Reeve: The Bermuda Triangle seems to have gone a bit quiet lately.  When I was a lad it was never off the telly in one form or another.  I remember an American sci-fi show called 'Fantastic Journey' which involved Roddy McDowell trying to escape from it, and there was even a Bermuda Triangle song by Barry Manilow.  I quite liked reading about it, because it was a nice long way away and so not as scary as aliens, who one always suspected might land in the back garden at any moment.  I'm intrigued to know what prompted you to write about it.  Is it an interest of yours, or just a handy way to get your characters into the raptor world?

Mark Robson: It appears there is still a remarkable amount of interest in the Bermuda Triangle, though if you ask most young people where it is, they don’t actually know.  They simply have a vague notion of it as a mysterious place where boats and aircraft disappear.  I was amazed when I started putting bits on my blog about some of the more famous mysteries just how rapidly the hits on my website increased.  Folk remain fascinated by the aura of mystery that surrounds the area.

My original intention was to write a follow-up series to Dragon Orb utilising the Bermuda Triangle, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt the setting offered the chance for me to attempt having contemporary characters enter a fantasy style adventure through it.  What I didn’t realise was how much of a change this would require to my writing process – having so much real world action.  My publishers loved the idea and commissioned it, but when it came to writing the first book, I found it terrifying.  It felt like learning to write from scratch all over again.  All the things I could get away with in my previous books because I was writing in an imaginary world now had to be correct.  I found my research time for the silliest little things became hugely distracting to the writing process.

There are many websites and books, (most a bit dated now, but a few newer ones) devoted to the mysteries surrounding the region.  The sensationalists will tell you that the effects are as active as ever.  I’m not so sure about that.  However, it was fascinating doing the research in the Florida Keys.  Whenever I asked anyone about it in interview while they were in a work related place, they all said it was a load of hokum.  Get the same sort of people in a bar in the evening and their stories are very different.  Apparently ‘everyone’ knows that Atlantis is on the seabed near the Bahamas and that there are weird magnetic anomalies in the area, to say nothing of all the UFOs and USOs (Unidentified Submarine Objects).  To be honest, my own experiences flying through the region as a military pilot were very mundane, but there do seem to have been a remarkable number of interesting incidents in the area, so who knows?  Maybe there is something strange happening out there. 

Philip Reeve:  The raptor civilisation's energy source in the book is ingenious - heating the earth's mantle to increase its magnetic field - and sounds convincing to me.  But it's starting to go wrong, with catastrophic climatic effects.  Is that intended as a parable about our own world?  I sometimes worry that all the new technologies we sci-fi writers suggest are in the process of ruining the world: it makes for a more interesting story if they go wrong, but are we giving children the idea that technology is a bad thing, and that they should be pessimistic about the future?

Mark Robson: I must thank science fiction writer and occasional editor of New Scientist magazine, Ian Watson, for that idea.  My conversation with him would have sounded bizarre to anyone listening in.  It went something like this:

Me: Hi, Ian.  Mark Robson here.  I wonder if you could help me.  I’ve got a bit of a problem.  I need to increase the earth’s magnetic field by several factors.  How can I do it?


Ian: Mark!  Ah, yes.  Interesting.  Well, the obvious solution would be to bring the moon closer… but that might prove a bit tricky!  (I’m thinking Yeah, obvious!  Silly me!  Why didn’t I think of that?)  I suppose you could detonate a mass of directed nuclear charges on the far side and try to shunt it a bit nearer, but I’m not convinced that would work and the splatter would be terribly messy.  Even if you did manage it, the side-effects would be horrific. 

Me:  Ah!  So not possible then.

Ian:  Well… of course, you know the earth works like a dynamo. 

Me: Yes, I vaguely remember something about that from my ‘A’ Level Physics days.

Ian:  OK, well the earth’s magnetic field is caused by the friction of the magma flowing around the earth’s iron core.  If you could speed up the flow, the friction would increase and so would the strength of the magnetic field.  Hmmm… how could we speed up the magma flow?  Make it less viscous.  Heat it, perhaps… hmm… that’s a lot of magma to heat…

And thus began the raptor’s cunning plan of pumping their nuclear waste into the earth’s core over a number of centuries, gradually producing the stronger field.  In theory, doing this might produce the effect I describe, though probably not at the magnitude I have it in the story. 

Yes, the inadvertent ecological disaster is intended as a parable.  The dangers of ignoring the warning signs of an impending global catastrophe are pretty self-evident, and there’s a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek parallel to the human race’s general attitude to global warming.  However, I’m trying to avoid it becoming too preachy in the story and I certainly don’t want to give children the impression that all technology is bad.  Personally I’m something of an optimist and feel that mankind is so adaptive that we will continue to find ways to overcome the problems we seem to be creating for ourselves.

The political situation in the raptor society also comes to the fore in the second book.  The rulers there are rather like a military junta who control their society with an iron fist.  While the general raptor populace are willing to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the causes of their environmental changes, one particular decision by their leaders in Book 2 will spark a very violent revolution.

Philip Reeve:  Do you do a lot of world building before you start a book, or does it come together as you write?  Do you plan your characters, or do they just grow?

I must confess that I don’t do anywhere near enough world building before I begin and that nearly always comes back to haunt me as I get further into a story.  I do try to get to know my characters a little before I launch into a story with them, but again, I should probably do more.  I have found with each series of books I’ve written that it takes until the end of the first book for me to feel like I know them properly.  Even then they surprise me sometimes.

Philip Reeve: What's next?

Mark Robson: Book 2 of the trilogy, Eye of the Storm, is well underway.  I’m just over half way through the first draft and hope to complete it in time for a pre-Christmas launch.  In this book the reader will learn that the crossing points between worlds are not limited entirely to the Bermuda Triangle region and that many other famous mysterious disappearances were actually caused by random storms in other parts of the world.  We find Amelia Earhart’s grandson has invented a new breed of flying machine, giving raptors the power of flight.  It also appears that Glenn Miller and Lord Lucan were victims of the effect!

What I’d love to do is set the real world element of the third (and final) book off the coast of Japan in the area Charles Berlitz dubbed “The Devil’s Sea” – another area of water with a similar reputation to the Bermuda Triangle.  This would, of course, require another research trip… one of the great things about setting a story in the real world!

Beyond this trilogy, I’m not sure.  I’ve got outlines for about another 10 books of various types, and ideas for a lot more.  Having recently gained my black belt in Tae Kwon Do, I’d quite like to try writing a modern martial arts story – the Karate Kid meets Jackie Chan in Grange Hill sort of thing.  I think that would be a lot of fun to do. 

Philip Reeve:  Thank you Mark.  Take it away, Barry!*

*And leave it there.

Bracelet of Bones, by Kevin Crossley-Holland

Kevin Crossley-Holland is one of the giants of children's fiction, which he's been writing for as long as I can recall - I remember being thrilled by his version of Beowulf when I was at school.  More recently his Arthur trilogy has been hugely and deservedly successful, and its lovely pendant, Gatty's Tale is one of my favourite modern novels.  He's also, among other things, an acclaimed poet, and the author of the marvellous Penguin Book of Norse Myths.  

His latest book, Bracelet of Bones, marks a return to the Viking north.  Rather as his Arthur books drew on Arthurian traditions from all across Europe, Bracelet of Bones reminds us that the Vikings didn't just operate in northern seas but sailed and traded as far as Byzantium (Constantinople to us; Miklagard to them).  And like Gatty's Tale, the new book is the story of a girl on a journey; Solveig, who sets out to follow her father, a Viking warrior who has gone to join the Byzantine emperor's Varangian guard.

Solveig's odyssey takes her from 11th Century Norway through the heart of what is now Russia, to Novgorod, Kiev, and the perilous cataracts of the River Dnieper.  Along the way she encounters kings and craftsman, Christians and pagans, shamans and slaves.  There is an ambush by savage Pechenegs (me neither), a meeting with an English spy, and landfall at last in Byzantium itself, a city so teeming with life and detail that it leaves you longing to know more, and looking forward to the sequel (which is already under way, hoorah!).  Most of the people Solveig meets are basically good, and few of the bad ones seem completely bad; there is a refreshing absence of real villainy; a sense that people (except maybe Pechenegs) are basically decent.

This is not a fast-moving story.  It flows like a river, mostly slow and patient, taking its time, occasionally rushing over sudden rapids of violence and tragedy.  I wonder how it will be received by young readers used to the breakneck pacing of many contemporary children's books?  I hope they give it a chance, and bring to it the concentration which it demands and deserves.  They will be rewarded if they do.  It's a rich and convincing evocation of the past, and at the same time a great character study - a tremendous amount of the book takes place in Solveig's head, as her thoughts and memories constantly interweave with the narrative, as do the stories that she knows; the myths and superstitions which often seem as real to her as the rest of her world.  It's a book about fathers and daughters, and friendship, and the joys and difficulties of making things: carvings; stories.  It's about growing up.  

And perhaps more than any of these, it's about language and the love of language: like my other favourite writer, Geraldine McCaughrean, Mr Crossley-Holland is an author whose books need reading at least twice; once for the story, and once for the words themselves.

Philip Reeve

A Good Workout

By Andrew Gorton

In the summer of 2010, a friend, knowing of my burgeoning interest in nature and the environment, handed me the July programme of a conservation group that had, at that time, been going for nearly a year. Activities included earthworm surveys, tree planting, and the removal of bracken, bramble and other invasive species, among similar endeavours. The group was called the North Norfolk Workout Project

Keen to try it out, I turned up at Cromer train station, one of the pick-up points mentioned on the programme, and duly the project minibus arrived, driven by project manager Mark. After introductions, Mark explained a bit more about the group. The project had been set up by the North Norfolk district Council and BTCV, with input from English Nature and the NHS, amongst other groups. The idea was to undertake outdoor conservation projects in the North Norfolk region, and in the process give volunteers access to nature and improve their physical and mental health.

So off we went to Sadlers Wood near North Walsham - myself, Mark and a half-dozen or so other volunteers, to clear bracken from a wild flower meadow. I must admit, when I saw the amount of bracken, I quailed a bit, and wondered if we could clear it all. But we all got stuck in, and soon large swathes of the stuff had been cleared. I found it surprising and strangely satisfying to see the amount we had done just  a couple of hours.

 After a very pleasant tea break – an essential fixture of each session - some of the group carried out a couple of surveys on behalf of the Open Air Laboratories Network (OPAL), a scheme run by the Natural History Museum that encourages people to investigate certain aspects of the natural world and report their results. That day, we carried out a soil and earthworm survey. This involved  investigating a patch of soil to find out its make-up, (how much sand, how much clay etc.), its acidity, and whether there were any earthworms nearby. The next survey involved checking trees for specific types of lichen to determine the levels of nitrogen in the air - some lichens thrive in nitrogen rich air and others do not, so this is a good way of checking air quality. In the event, we found neither earthworms nor lichens of any kind, but the results were sent off, and hopefully the boffins at the NHM can make something of them. I returned home at the end of the day having enjoyed both the work and the surroundings a lot. 

It was after this that a period of ill health prevented me from getting about for a bit, so I was unable to attend any more sessions until September, when I became involved in earnest. I attended a wildlife walk in Bacton woods with Mark's colleague Fin, and saw an unbelievable (to me, at any rate) array of different fungi – 2010 being a bumper year for them. The session after that at Holt Country Park was something of a knees-up to celebrate the Project's 1st anniversary. A good time was had by all, although I did feel a bit guilty attending the event – I had only done 2 sessions prior to this, and I was rubbing shoulders with people who had done 30, 40, or 50 sessions....   Anyway, I got a good vibe from all the other volunteers, they were proud of what they had done in the last year, and Mark and Fin were given cards signed by everybody in appreciation of their efforts.

Since then, I have worked at a number of sites throughout North Norfolk with the Project, performing a lot of different conservation activities.

At Pigneys Wood at North Walsham, one of the earliest tasks I was involved in was raking recently mown grass from a wild flower meadow. This is to prevent the grass from rotting down and swamping the soil – wild flowers prefer thin soil with relatively few nutrients; a case of 'less is more.'  On subsequent sessions there I have found myself cutting reeds, planting hedges and trees and coppicing alders. Coppicing is an ancient form of woodland management, where the trees are cut right down to the stumps, and then allowed to grow, often producing several thin poles from the same stump. In the meantime, the reduced canopy allows more light to reach the forest floor, increasing biodiversity there.  On this particular exercise, these alders had been previously coppiced, and the numerous poles we sawed down were going to be used for an art project. They are flexible enough to be weaved, or 'wattled' into walls. (A more recent coppicing session at Holt Country Park will see the alder trunks used to make a maze – pretty 'amazing' eh?). Incidentally, a similar technique is pollarding. This is where the trees are cut to chest or head height. This is to allow livestock to graze without damaging the new shoots.

A regular activity we carry out around Holt and Sheringham is the removal of rhododendrons, an extremely invasive species. Although it sometimes seems a never-ending task – there are masses of this plant around - 5 or 6 of us can make short work of a large rhodo bush. Indeed, it is quite satisfying to saw through a large trunk of this Triffid-like plant and remove great swathes of it for later burning.

A couple of sessions were at Salthouse Heath, clearing gorse, not only to encourage biodiversity, but to expose 4000-year-old Bronze Age burial mounds for archaeological investigation. One cannot choose but wonder what sort of people they were, or what life was like back then. The photographs below show one particular mound,  before we had begun work, and after we had finished for the afternoon.



There was one particular session at Salthouse I shall never forget. We'd finished early to go and see the nearby remains of a World War 2 radar mast. Towards the end of the war, a Lancaster bomber returning from a mission over Germany had to divert from it's home airfield due to thick fog that had covered the whole area. Lost, and flying at around 200 feet, the plane had crashed right into this radar mast. Six of the crew were killed outright, and the seventh died a few hours later. It was very sobering to see the remains of the tower – four concrete 'feet', each with about a meter or so of metal girder sprouting from them, adorned with wooden crucifixes and a poppy wreath. There was a light fog forming when we got there, and knowing what had happened there, it was quite an eerie experience.

On a lighter note, and speaking of fog, I have, perhaps a touch masochistically, gone out in all weathers during my time with the project. Sun, rain, snow; you name it I've been out in it. Holt Country Park, just before Christmas, looked particularly winter-wonderlandy:

The project has also garnered a couple of prestigious awards. One, awarded before I had joined, was for encouraging biodiversity in the region. We were also one of three groups short-listed for the Love Norfolk category for the Norfolk People of the Year awards. I was privileged to be invited, along with fellow volunteer Clive along to the evening by Mark and Fin (we had to wear suits, a real shock to the system!) along with representatives from other organisations involved with the NNWP. In the end, we lost to a community composting group based in Trunch. (Boo! Hiss!) But all in all, it was an honour to be short-listed, and it was a great evening, with some good food and some really inspiring stories of human endeavour. We also managed to filch a few bottles of wine to boot-something extra for Christmas!

So far, I have done some 40 sessions with the North Norfolk Workout Group, and have enjoyed them immensely. I have particularly enjoyed meeting and working with the other volunteers, who are from a variety of backgrounds. Some are college students studying the countryside and the environment. A couple of others already have degrees in similar fields. All have brought their knowledge to the Project in one way or another. Some, like me, are unemployed and are seeking to gain new skills and experience. Still others have come on the Project to meet new people and to just get out of the house and do something worthwhile. But whatever the reasons, I think I can say that we have all got something out of the North Norfolk Workout.

Andrew Gorton is an Open University student, London born but now living on the North Norfolk coast.


Philip Reeve has been watching MicMacs (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2009. Cert. 12)

Films slip past me sometimes now that I live so far from cinemas.  How did I miss Mic-Macs?  Did it get no cinema release in the UK?  Was there no publicity?  Not to worry; it's on DVD now, and it's well worth watching.  

Alien: Resurrection
 Jean-Pierre Jeunet has been one of my heroes ever since his debut, Delicatessen, which he wrote and directed with Marc Caro back in 1991.  Their follow-up, City of Lost Children, was harder to like - beautiful but slightly unappealing - and then M Jeunet went off sans Caro to Hollywood to direct Alien: Resurrection which was legendarily, franchise-stallingly bad (although I suspect the fault lay more with the producers than the director, and there were still some lovely visual flourishes - Brad Dourif in his tailored lab-coat is the forefather of all the Engineers in Mortal Engines).  After that, thankfully, there were no more stints helming clapped-out Hollywood cash-cows; instead, M Jeunet returned to France to make Amelie (which, despite frequently being described as 'charming and quirky' actually is charming and quirky) and the magnificent World War 1 story A Very Long Engagement.  

A Very Long Engagement
And now, with very little fanfare as far I can tell, there is MicMacs, which combines some of the quirky sweetness of Amelie with a crazy bande dessine storyline which harks right back to Delicatessen.  The hero, Bazil, is a man who falls on hard times, and is rescued by a mis-matched 'family' of homeless oddballs who inhabit a glorious labyrinth of junk and salvage under a Parisian flyover. (I presume these are the MicMacs of the title, though I still have no idea what a MicMac actually is)  With their help he sets out to wreak revenge on the two arms manufacturers who have wrecked his life (one made the land-mine which killed his father, while the other produced the bullet which is lodged in Bazil's brain).  Through a series of increasingly complex ruses involving strange, scrap-heap machines, they start to turn the two armaments giants against one another...

It's all hugely unlikely, but likeliness is not the point here.  Jeunet films are fantasies, and even when they are set in present-day Paris he transforms it into a dream world.  His arms tycoons don't work out of soaring glass office buildings, but in a pair of identical 1930s towers which face each other across a narrow street.  The rooftops of Paris can't really be such a fantastic maze of smoking chimney-pots any more, can they?  The film's scrap-metal saboteurs perform feats out of Mission Impossible with equipment which could have been designed by the Wombles.  Even when he photographs something mundane, like people uploading videos to YouTube or stuck in a traffic jam among modern buildings, Jeunet gives it all a strange patina of age and difference.  Under the eye of his restless, gliding camera Paris transforms itself into a parallel world, much like the retro-future of Delicatessen (which was itself a nod to the retro-future of Terry Gilliam's Brazil).

Like all my favourite film-makers, Jeunet doesn't seem that interested in dialogue.  You sense he would have been perfectly at home in the silent era.  In the pre-title sequence he explains Bazil's background perfectly in a few swift and largely wordless scenes.  Later, at taxi-ranks and on roof-tops, there are visual routines worthy of Chaplin.  It's tempting to compare it to French comic-books, but that would be misleading, because while every shot is composed as beautifully as a Moebius strip, Mic-Macs isn't like a comic book: it's like a movie. It's also very sweet - a revengers' comedy in which good triumphs, romance blossoms, and villains are ingeniously undone.

As they say on French YouTube (apparently): Partager Cette Video.