Friday, 20 February 2015

Introducing Prince Axel

 One of the best things about being a writer is MSU.

 Making stuff up.

Did anybody read Susan's blog on Murder Is Everywhere last week and not think of a new Bond villain who sits and plots the downfall of western civilisation while watching the seahorses in his tank going about their own guerrilla tactics?  

Or was that  just  me?
I was wandering around the aquarium in Long Beach, tickling the horseshoe crabs etc and I saw this display showing the different layers of the ocean and who hangs around in each doing what.

The sunlight zone is from the surface to about 200 meters depth and it is the extent of visible light and heat from the sun. The thermocline - an interaction of wind, warm water and rapidly cooling water  - is strongest in the tropics yet is almost  non existent in the Polar regions. This ocean layer nourishes life of every colour. The colours lessen on the way  down as the increasing lack of sunlight filters some out.  The first colours to go are the reds, then oranges, yellows, greens, and then finally blues.

The next zone is the twilight zone (200 meters to 1,000 meters) The light here is faint and flickering. The thermocline causes  great temperature changes. Bioluminescence begins to appear on life. The eyes on the fishes are larger and generally upward directed. Human eyes can detect nothing.

In the midnight layer (1000-4000 metres) there is constant darkness. The only light is from the bioluminescence of the animals themselves. The temperature is 4°C.  There is no light, no day, no night. There is organic rainfall; dead microscopic organisms, faecal matter, the odd carcass.

The abyssal layer ( 4,000 to 6,000 meters). It is pitch-black. Three-quarters of the area of the deep-ocean floor lies in this zone. The temperature is near freezing and only a few creatures can be found at these crushing depths. The deepest fish ever found was at 8,372.

Then there is the Hadal Zone (6,000 to 10,911 meters) in the Mariana Trench. The weight of water overhead is that of 48 Boeing 747 jets).  There are only tiny single-celled organisms; foraminifera.

And in the novel that I am writing, I have a character who is lying in a coma. And it struck me that the layers of the ocean could work as a metaphor for the character swimming in the deep blackness of his own conscious mind as it probes and tries to feel its way out/up into the real world. Or maybe that is what the character is hiding from.

My research tells me that much of what is universally believed about coma is not true but as it is a pleasant panacea for the relatives, the myths are allowed to persist. Patients so do not hear or see anything so they do not think. They just are.

As I would rather be happy than right I just refuse to believe this. I am told by experts that the little bits patients do recall are only because the incident occurred when they are 'close to the surface' anyway and ready to re-emerge. The fact that they have been played their favourite pop tunes and read their favourite stories is neither here nor there, except it makes the family  feel they are doing something  about the  situation.

I have met a few folk who have been in a coma, (traumatic not induced) and they tell similar stories of picking up minutiae, the scent of peppermints, the fact the girlfriend had started smoking again as he could smell it off her breath and could recall conversations between his girlfriend and his mum- the latter giving the former a row for going back to the fags. That young lad was in a coma for 8 months, the girlfriend starting smoking again when the accident happened, so some of his memory seems to come from the early days ... before he dived deep if you like.

                                              Whale fall. A long way from Skyfall.

So in my book I have that analogy going on. Then I saw the display on whale fall ( when a whale dies and lies decomposing on the floor of the ocean and creates a whole ecosystem of new life, and that ecosystem can go on for decades). And there was organ donorship right there, new life from death. That  also fits in with the book and gave me its working title ‘Whale Fall’. I know the publisher will fling that out the minute they see it, but it is a good pet name for the book and will help keep me focussed.

And the book is set in Glasgow. I want it to be in that area of the city with big hotels, good restaurants and classy nightclubs. The streets here are all named after the Crimean War and run down to the Clyde and Atlantic Quay… oh I thought that’s handy. So I have invented a new street in there called Inkermann Street. On that street is a building called the ‘Ocean Blue’. Many of the buildings here  are old tobacco warehouses. The council has a policy that any new buyer can do as they  wish with the building as long as they  keep the front.


Who would not want to keep frontage like the above? So to have something like that as a base, I have designed a  couple of penthouse flats, restaurants, offices but down the middle, in a central glass tube is a huge aquarium.  And in that tube is another tube at huge pressure for creatures of the deep deep (very technical I know and  I have no idea if a glass tube, no matter how thick, can contain pressurised water to keep a fish alive if it likes to live at a pressure of, say, three jumbo jets but it is my book and I can do as I want.) I have a patient who is a deep, deep tiny submarine person and he has a windscreen so the glass is capable of it!

Isn't MSU great!


So imagine sitting in a restaurant,  very posh and watching the central wall which looks like this.  Then as the evening goes on, the light falls, and the inner tube ( where the fish have their  luminescence) will slowly become visible,
And out of all that blackness appears this......
                                                 The Prince Axel Wonderfish

Not pretty. But wondrous. And I do wonder what Prince Axel thought when he was told that is was being named after him.    'I saw this and I thought of you...'.

His is Thaumatichthys axeli, his Phylum: Chordata

He has a luminescent organ dangling from his toothy jaws to attract prey. The first specimen was trawled from a depth of 11,778 feet by the Galathea expedition of 1950-52.  He is black of course, about 18 inches long.
Here is a very short video of him blinking his lure,  but blink and you will miss it.

Caro Ramsay 20/02/2015

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Deeply Dippy About the dinosaur

The fangs are out.

And the flippers are in.

                                     Who wouldn't want that in the front room?

The Natural History Museum has just announced that Dippy is being retired. The rather splendid cast of diplodocus is being removed and being replaced by the skeleton of the blue whale.

                                       Artist impression of the new entrance

But not after a fight. Some of us it seems, are rather fond of Dippy and are not going to let him go without a fight.

                                                             oldie but goldie

The plaster cast skeleton was a gift to the Museum from Andrew Carnegie (from Val McDermid and Ian Rankin country in the kingdom, of Fife) and he bears the name Diplodocuscarnegii for that reason.  At that time, 1905, he was the largest dinosaur known.

                                            bearded chappies nibbling canapes in wonder

Although there are other copies of Dippy... Dippy doubles…10 of them, decituplets? something… in Berlin, Paris and Milan, he is always associated with the Natural History Museum in London.


He has taken pride of place in the main hall since 1979 and he reflects the beautiful architecture around him. He seems to fit in a way that I’m not a blue whale would.

Dippy has appeared in numerous films and documentaries and is a bit of a star in his own right. He had his own twitter account, 'save Dippy' is trending in the world of hashtags.  Petitions are being signed to keep him or her in place. (it is impossible to sex the diplodocus ... but as long as Dippy  or Miss Dippy himself knows the difference that’s all that matters.)

Rumours are now abounding that the Museum have ill judged the denizens depth of devotion to Dippy.

Dippy fits the Monty Python theory of the dinosaur 
ie small at each end and big in the middle

If they have their way, over the next two years Dippy will be dismantled and replaced with a mounted blue whale skeleton that will dive down from above. It may be very conservative and environmental and worthy, but will it be fun!  Museums must change with the times and the blue whale is an iconic image in the green movement to look after the planet, but  a whale is a whale is a whale. I’ve seen them in the wild and on the tv. I’ve seen blue whale models in long beach aquarium for one instance… and it is impressive, they are impressive…

but  Dippy is engaging, and he talks to the young.  There is a sense of evolution when you talk to Dippy.  Dippy discourse. Of course.

Over the last few years Dippy has raised nearly a million pounds in funds and the dinosaur exhibits that he heralds is the only one that always has a queue to get in. On our recent visit we saw the sign that said an hour to queue from here. And that was a school day, early Friday morning. Instead we watched homo sapiens fall over on the ice rink, where the sun had melted the top inch of the surface so there was a lot of water sloshing about. Anybody who fell got very wet. Especially on their backside.  Homo sapiens soakius gluteus.

So what is going to happen to Dippy's remains. Maybe he will be kidnapped for his own good, as in One of our dinosaurs is missing. But he is a senior citizen, a golden oldie, a crumbly or as we call them in Glasgow, a coffin dodger. He is over a hundred years old, he is fragile and delicate.  Decorously Delicate Dippy. So touring seems out the question.  He could be set free and put outside to graze on the grass at the front of the museum but he would need to be recast  to withstand the weather and therefore he would not be not Dippy the delectable. The thought of him being wrapped up and put in a box with a bar code on top is dastardly and deplorable.

He has 292 bones, 36 packing cases brought him to London, it took four months to build him and he was unveiled on Friday 12th May 1905. He was taken down during the war to protect him and over the years he has been re configured as paleontologists advanced research and understood more of  how Dippy would look and how he would move. Originally his tail and head were down, now the neck is horizontal and the tail forms a graceful arc over the heads of his visitors.


As I said there is now a petition. it attracted 22,574 signatures in just one day and novelty pop duo Right Said Fred have released a single to help prevent Dippy’s demise. Their hit song was called deeply dippy so it's not a huge lyrical leap. 

The lower comment says that replacing Dippy with a blue whale is like replacing the Eiffel Tower with a stack of toilet rolls.

The director of the zoo says that he  loves Dippy, too but the dinosaur has had a good 35 years in the limelight and he is ready for something new.

I've known men to use that theory about their wife.

Caro Ramsay  

Friday, 6 February 2015

Sawney ( Has) Been

 I was running about as I do, listening to a fine account of the first serial killer well documented in British history, in Colin Wilson’s Mammoth Book Of Murder.


So to set the scene; Scotland. 1400, James 1st is on the throne. Edinburgh is little more than a village. Glasgow, which means dark glen, is exactly that. All of Scotland is wild and green. And cold. And empty.
(Not much has changed)


And then there started a reign of terror. Down in Galloway people started to go missing. Travellers on the coast road simply vanished off the face of the earth. At first it was thought to be wolves but there was never any trace left, no bones, no clothes, no jewels. When the list of disappearances topped a thousand over a period of twenty plus years, the King sent out a posse.  They hung a few tramps, a few innkeepers and anybody else they didn’t like the look of. But the disappearances continued.

Then a couple were riding their horses on the coastal path coming home from a fair. Savages appeared, dragged the woman her from the horse, slitting her throat and disembowelling her there and then. The man, still on his horse, fought with his cutlass until some other travellers came round the corner, returning from the same fair. The attackers fled.

The horse and the man were the first survivors in 25 years.

Word got back to the King who turned up four days later with a small army of 400 men. They found nothing. Eventually they went down to the beach and at low tide rode along looking up at the caves in the cliff face.  Narrow and jaggy, maybe broad enough to allow a man through but little more than that. Then two of the hunting dogs got a scent and ran up to a cave mouth. Once past the narrow entrance the cave widened out, the king recalled his men and waited for torches to be lit.

Outside the caves the dogs went crazy. Deep inside were 48 people living in squalor, body parts lay around the cave, some hanging from higher rocks, clothes and jewels scattered the floor. The cave is said to have been 200 feet deep and its entrance became totally submerged at high tide.

They were all captured and taken back to Edinburgh as the King’s men buried the remains of the dead.

The leader was identified Sawney Bean who had been born Alexander Bean in East Lothian. He had left Leith 25 years before with his wife. They had 8 sons and 6 daughters, 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters all inbred. And they were cannibals. The story appears well documented in The Newgate Calendar, a crime catalogue of the notorious Newgate Prison in London. It says that Bean was the son of a ditch digger and hedge trimmer but Bean Jnr soon realised he had no taste for honest  toil.

And a taste for human flesh.

                                                     The lay out of the cave 

All were executed without trial because the king regarded them as beasts and therefore had no right of trial, no right to any kind of human dignity. The men had their hands and feet cut off and were left to bleed to death. The women were all burned alive in three separate fires.  The chronicler John Nicolson said ‘They all died with no repentance, cursing up to the last gasp of life.’

The story of Sawney Bean has been used time and time again in horror films and books.  Wes Cravens, The Hills have Eyes for example.


None of it is true.

It is now popularly thought, with some pride it has to be said, that it was all anti-Scottish propaganda to portray the Scots as ‘dangerous savages’ at a time of political difficulties within the Union.

                                                   There are many things wrong with the picture. The corpse, the kilt, plaid with laces!!! 

Scottish historian Dr Louise Yeoman says about the books published about the story: "the books it sold were published not in Scotland but in England, at a time when there was widespread prejudice against Scots." She points out that despite the story being set in various times, the story of Sawney Bean cannot be found until the times of the Jacobite risings. The English were looking to show the Scots in a negative way “either as subjects of ridicule or as having a sinister nature.” Dr Yeoman adds: "The name Sawney itself was a popular English name for the barbarous cartoon Scot."It's like calling a cartoon Irishman Paddy.”
                                                         James The King, with a better stylist.

There is huge historical inaccuracy.  His reign of terror ranges from James I of Scotland in the early 1400s, to James VI of Scotland (who was James I of England) around the turn of the 17th Century. So, legend rather than reality.
David Haymam, in the film....

where he stalks the city in a black cab then takes his victims out to the hills...The Flesh Of Man...

I did giggle when Dr Yeoman pointed out a very humane fact. Although King James was a keen hunter he was unlikely to have put himself in danger by leading this perilous trek against the savage beats living in the caves. He would have sent somebody else. If he had gone there and rounded up the tribe by his own fair hand, we would never have heard the end of it and he would be regarded as a hero of the time.

He wasn’t.

Reading round the internet, it seems cannibalism was not unknown in medieval Scotland. And Galloway can still be a pretty wild place. I know. I've been to the Wigtown book Festival.

Caro Ramsay  06-02-15

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The British Museum

The British Museum was founded 1753. It now houses over 8 million objects.


 It is famous for many things including the objective of our visit – the Rosetta Stone, it is infamous for a few too, the Elgin Marbles.


Like all government funded museums, it is free. Apart from the special exhibitions but you can spend days wandering around looking at ‘stuff’ and thinking….
Wow, how old is that?
What is it worth?
Who did we steal it from?
Do they want it back?

The BM was founded  by  Sir Hans Sloan, physician and naturalist  (1660–1753). He left his collection  of over 70 000 artefacts, drawings and paintings to King George II.
There is so much to look at and photograph, I’m only blogging about the bits I like. Durer is probably my favourite artist, along with Degas ( you can almost smell the horses in Jockey’s in the Rain).
Sloan had purchased much of Durer’s work. I like this….

                                                    The Walrus, 1521.

Initially the collection was housed in Montague House. The BM and the British Library were one and the same – the latter being formed from many collections including the Royal Libraries (four of them to be precise). The British Library still owns the Lindisfarne Gospels and the only surviving copy of Beowulf.

The British Library contains a copy of every book published in this country and, I think by Act of Parliament,  a copy of every new book published here must be sent to the Library. I have no idea what happens to the publisher if they fail to do this.  The library therefore expands every year and it needs… wait for it…. 1 ¼ miles of new shelf space each year.

It contains David Garrick’s collection of 1,000 printed plays!

When a trustee gifted a library of 20 000 books, it took twenty one horse drawn carriages to move them. That was January 1847.

When T E Lawrence brought back what he had ‘excavated’ at Carchemish, the whole collection had to be evacuated in 1918  due to the threat of wartime bombing. It was moved, piece by piece by the postal railway from Holburn  (pronounced Hoburn to annoy tourists), to  Aberystwyth and Malvern.

The library spilt from the BM to move to a new location in St Pancras, the final books were moved in  1997.

But more than  a hundred years before that, the trustees had realised that Montague House was no longer fit for purpose, the collection was getting too big. The light was difficult and there were issues with dampness and humidity.  They looked at a few alternative sites, including one called Buckingham House but they rejected it on the grounds of its location.
I think somebody else bought it and converted it for residential use.

In 1895 the trustees purchased  69 houses that surrounded the Museum and started demolishing them  so they could expand further. In the 1970’s the museum  expanded again. It became more user friendly. That was my first visit there, as a wee tiny person to see the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" in 1972. I only remember my legs hurting because we had to queue for so long, and being constantly told not to get sticky fingermarks on the glass.

It attracted 1,694,117 visitors ( four of them Ramsays) .
It was the most successful exhibition in British history.

It was revamped recently, the huge  central quadrangle  the ‘Queen Elizabeth II Great Court’ ( the largest covered square in Europe)  opened in 2000. I believe that no two panes of glass in the roof are the same, but I didn’t check.

From the original collection, there are now over thirteen million objects at the British Museum, 70 million at the Natural History Museum and 150 million at the British Library. The BM website has the largest online database of any museum in the world. Over 2,000,000 individual objects.
From 2012 to 2013, the museum increased its footfall by 20%,.  6.7 million visitors.
Here are my highlights, in no particular order.

Room 4 – The Rosetta Stone, the key to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, 196 BC. My 
other half was very excited by this.

But in the Kings Library...


There is a touchable replica....

And then...



Room 17 – Reconstruction of the Nereid Monument, c. 390 BC


Room 21 – Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, mid 4th century BC

A big nasty dog, but looking lovingly at its owner who is probably just opening the ancient equivalent of Chappie Doggy Delight. It is the Jennings Dog, statue of a Molossian guard dog, (2nd Century AD)


Room 23 - The famous version of the 'Crouching Venus', Roman, c. 1st Century AD


Room 22 – Roman marble copy of the famous 'Spinario (Boy with Thorn)', c. 1st Century AD

And a beautiful horse to  finish with.