Thursday, 31 January 2013

How old is old?

On a school visit not long ago a boy told me that fifty four is, like, ancient.

 Oh dear. I do hope it was nothing personal...

 Surveys have decided that the beginning of old age is anything from about sixty five and eighty years of age.

 My Neanderthal band in SONG HUNTER has an old lady amongst them. She’s called Pearl, and she’s the grandmother of my heroine Mica. Pearl is nearly blind and her joints are stiff. She’s too old to hunt, though she’s full of life and nobody’s fool.

 How old is Pearl?

 Well, Neanderthals seem to have grown up a little faster than Homo sapiens in Western Europe does nowadays. Neanderthals were more or less full grown by the time they were fifteen.

 That meant that I could have a guess at the age of my old old lady.

 After doing all the arithmetic, it turned out that the ancient Pearl was forty three years old.


Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Who do you think you are?

In SONG HUNTER my heroine Mica is forced to reject almost all her people's beliefs. 

 She loves and respects her parents, but her world is changing so profoundly that she must either  rebel or die.

 But it’s cold out there. And full of danger. How can she work out how to become the person she needs to be in order to survive?


How did you do it?

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

How many people make up the ideal band?

Well, you need a drummer and a bassist and a lead guitarist who can all sing...

No, okay, what I'm really thinking about is the best size for a band of Neanderthal hunters.

Mica lives with seven other people in SONG HUNTER. One of them is too old to hunt, and one is too young. Two of the band are adolescents, which means they’re not yet at full size or strength.

 That leaves four full-strength adults: two women, two men.

Of course there’s more to living than hunting, even for a Neanderthal. There’s the gathering of fuel for the fire, and the preparing of food, and the processing of skins for clothing and bedclothes.

In fact, even though half the band aren’t fully efficient hunters, the one problem my Neanderthal people don’t have is finding enough things to do.

I wonder if the ideal ratio of workers to non-workers in modern humans societies is any different?


Monday, 28 January 2013

How to make your blood strong.

An Inuit hunter will drink the blood of a slaughtered seal to make his own blood strong. It is said that as he drinks you can see the veins on his wrists becoming darker and thicker.

 How can that be true?

 Well, the Inuit say it's true, and surely they must know.

 I can’t claim to understand what’s going on in the minds, and perhaps the veins, of the Inuit on these occasions.

 But it makes me wonder if the fact that SONG HUNTER is about Neanderthals makes much difference to our chance of understanding them.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

How FOXy were Neanderthals?

We can’t be sure how much Neanderthals could do or how bright they were. They had the FOXP2 gene, which is necessary for speaking – but then song birds and mice have the FOXP2 gene, too, so that doesn’t prove that Neanderthals could speak.

 Neanderthals existed for half a million years, which is a lot longer than we Homo sapiens have been around: but then horseshoe crabs have existed for 450 million years and they’re just, well, crabs.

 On the other hand, look at this:

 Now tell me: how bright were Neanderthals?

 Impressively bright, I think we have to say.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Why didn’t Neanderthals eat fish?

There are a million things science can tell us, and a million things it can’t.

There are at least two million things that people with letters after their names pretend science can tell us. But that’s a subject for a different post.

 When it comes to the history of Britain 40,000 years ago, science can tell us some extraordinary things. Science can tell us what the weather was like season by season (whereas I quite often have trouble remembering what the weather was like last week). There’s a branch of science which looks at pollen grains and can tell us exactly which plants were growing where, when.

 Even more extraordinarily, to me, scientists can analyse Neanderthal remains and tell us what they ate by looking at chemical traces in the bones.

 Like humans nowadays, Neanderthals had different diets depending upon where they lived. Those in Gibraltar enjoyed shell-fish, but those in Northern Europe don’t seem to have eaten fish at all.

 That’s amazing, you know. No fish.

Think about it. I'm sure that I’d have trouble hunting any sort of animal - even something fairly small like a reindeer - but I think I could probably manage to catch myself a fish.

 Why didn’t Neanderthals eat fish?

 Well, that’s one of the things science can’t tell us. So in SONG HUNTER I had to try to work it out.

Friday, 25 January 2013

How do you cook a mammoth?

There aren't any recipes for mammoth on Google that I could find, but there are some for elephant.

 Apparently the trunk is the very tastiest bit, followed by the legs.

 Several of the recipes involve cooking the meat in a pit for several hours, but that’s no good to Song Hunter’s Neanderthal people because for them fuel is very scarce: Mica’s band eat their meat raw most of the time.

 For me, the idea of eating elephant is sad, and rather revolting, but there was one recipe that tickled me.

 It said cut the elephant into bite-sized pieces and cook until done.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

How can you use words in an empty world?

 One of the difficulties in writing about non-humans is that one does get stuck for words.

 I first came across this problem when I was writing Cold Tom (Tom isn’t a Neanderthal, as it happens: he’s a different sort of non-human). Tom has lived a very isolated and primitive sort of a life, and this means that his vocabulary doesn’t contain useful words like chimney or car.

 This was both a great nuisance and tremendously exciting at the same time.

 Mica’s Neanderthal world was even more difficult to write about than Tom's. Mica's  horizons contain so little besides grassy hillsides, ice, and various bits of scary wildlife.

 So much experience is closed to her (and therefore to me, as the narrator of her story) that it wasn't possible to relax for a moment.

For instance, you know that tingly peppermint feeling the air makes in your nose on very cold days?
Well, Mica can never have come across peppermint.

 It may seem a small thing, but it means you have to watch every word like a...


 Hang on, I’ll look it up.

 Yes, there were hawks in Britain 40,000 years ago.



Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Why do birds sing?

 Swans sing before they die;

‘Twere no bad thing

Should certain people

Die before they sing.


That’s by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and how right he was – about people, anyway, if not about swans.

 But why do birds sing?

 Well, if we exclude all the various squawks and chirrups birds make and just stick to the proper song, there seem to be two main reasons. Firstly, to advertise their dominion over their territory; and secondly...

 ...well, the secondly is more interesting.

 In the Autumn our robin (the one which hops around my feet when I’m trying to dig the garden, I mean) spends a lot of time sitting on a branch and singing softly. It keeps its beak closed as it sings, and, I don’t know, it does sound...contented.

Robin In Winter
<a href="">Robin In Winter</a> by Vera Kratochvil
Can I prove that it’s singing because it’s happy?

 No, of course not. I can’t prove anyone’s happy, ever. Not even me. But why should the noise it makes sound happy?

That makes no sense at all.

 Does it?

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

My friend, my prey.

 I’ve mentioned before in this blog that a lot of the research I did for SONG HUNTER involved looking at the customs of the Inuit people of the far north.

 What I tend to do when researching a story is to read everything I can, on every even tangentially relevant subject, in the hope that a consistent environment for the book (I’d call it a reality, except of course that real is the last thing it is) settles itself in my brain.

 It means that a lot – most – of the research I do isn’t used at all. (Oh, but how tempting it is to squash in all these fascinating facts, even though I know they're knobbly and destructive of the story.)

 For instance (and I’ve been longing to tell someone this for over a year, now) an Inuit hunter is only allowed to kill a seal if he intends to eat it. To kill a seal for any other reason is wicked, and will lead to seals abandoning the hunting grounds. A seal killed for food gives itself willingly because it will be resurrected in the hunter once it is eaten.

 There we are: religion and conservation pulling in the same direction.

 Could the Inuit have survived without some rule like that?

 But who made up the rule?


And why?

Monday, 21 January 2013

Do you have to be mad to be an artist?

 Mica’s family and friends think that creating new things - making something out of nothing - is a certain sign of madness.

 If sanity is knowing what’s real, then of course they're right.

 So, does all human progress depend on madness?


And in that case how valuable madness is, and how much we should cherish it.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Why are kids so annoying?

 Finally you discover how to get things working properly, and then what happens?

 The flipping kids come along and want to start changing things.

 Now, a middle-aged or elderly person will have seen it all before - and not only seen it, but survived it. This is why a wrinkly will feel pretty sure that a) whatever happens, everyone will end up where they started, and, b) that there’s no point in wasting energy on new-fangled ideas.

 Everyone will manage as they are, and the thing that every kid has to remember is that Mother or Father or Uncle or teacher or priest or Grandad or boss or Great-Aunt or even (most infuriatingly) your best friend knows best.

 So what can a heroine do then?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Bouncing Britain?

 Did you know that Britain is bouncing?

 The thing is, the ice that covered Northern Europe during the last Ice Age weighed the whole place down, and the land is still bouncing back up again even though it's thousands of years since the ice melted. Scandinavia, for example, is rising at a rate of up to a centimetre a year. In some places you can see the rings the Vikings used to tie up their boats - but they're now several metres above sea level.

 Scotland is bouncing back particularly strongly, and this is causing the whole of Britain to tilt. This means that my house in the south east of England is actually sinking.

 All I can say is, thank heavens I live on a hill.

The Neanderthals of SONG HUNTER know nothing of this. They know almost nothing about anything outside their own small territory.

 But then it’s really not so different for us Homo sapiens, is it.



Friday, 18 January 2013

A spider’s web. It’s beautiful, but is it art?

I do wish I wouldn’t go around asking these questions. It’d be so much easier if I ignored them. After all, I could easily kill off a few extra animals if I wanted to detract attention from any holes in my plot.

 Still, now I’m here...

I remember once going to a brilliant exhibition of very modern art with one of my daughters. We were blown away by the originality and beauty of the work on display.

One of the last things we looked at was a brass pierced strip which was set into the floor. It was gorgeous.

But then one of us said: hang on. I think it might be a ventilator...

Art comes with four working parts: a) the thinking, b) the making, c) the seeing, and d) the thinking again.

 Do we have to have all four parts operating for it to be art?

 Surely one’s enough.

 So. That spider’s web. I’m not sure about a); and d) will be down to the observer.

 But I think there must be some art in a spider’s web.

 Don’t you?

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Why were they called Neanderthals, anyway?

In 1856, in the valley of the Neander river near Dusseldorf in Germany, some miners discovered the bones of a previously unknown creature.

These creatures were humanoid, but not quite the same as our own human species.

The newly-discovered creatures have become known as Neanderthals after the place they were found*.

Unfortunately the original site was dynamited out of existence by the miners, but the people of the Neander valley are still proud of their links to early man. There’s a museum:

and the museum shop even sells something called Neanderthal cordial.

 Replete with essence of mammoth, presumably.

I wish I could try it!

 *Thal is the German for valley. The word is usually spelled Neandertal in America, because that is how you say it.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Why are adults so, like, annoying?

 Annoying adults aren't a problem unique to SONG HUNTER, of course; or even unique to children’s fiction.

 It’s a question worth asking, though, all the same.

 The answer is far from simple and even further from easy. I mean, you could write a dozen books about it..., hang on a minute, I have written a dozen books about it...

 In SONG HUNTER the answer splits pretty much into two.

 1) Adults are annoying because they’re doing quite nicely with things as they are, thank you, and so they strongly resist any challenge to their status.

 2) Adults are annoying because they mistake experience for wisdom, whereas (as we all know) experience is all too often nothing but the temptation to repeat a mistake.

 And as for all the, like, nagging...

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

How many calories are there in a mammoth?

 A novel like SONG HUNTER must deal in practicalities. If your Neanderthal band has killed a mammoth, how long will it feed them?

 I love doing the arithmetic of this sort of thing. First of all you need to know how many people you’re feeding, and then how many calories each person will need to survive. To know that you need to know about their metabolism, the climate, their clothes, what shelter they have, and how active they are.

 Then, of course, you need to know how many calories there are in a mammoth.

 It’s amazing what you can find on the internet. I made a rough guess at the answer by starting off with the number of calories in an elephant (six million) and allowing for the fact that mammoths were bigger and carried lots of fat.

 Then I had to allow for all the scavenging animals of the place muscling in on the kill. My Neanderthals certainly wouldn't get to eat the whole thing.

 Yes, I know I had to make estimate upon estimate upon estimate.

But I did came up with some sort of a working answer, in the end.


Monday, 14 January 2013

What if there is only one person with whom to fall in love?

There were never very many Neanderthals. There couldn't be. They needed large amounts of territory to provide them with food, and even then survival was only possible if they lived in small groups.

Now, think about one of those small groups: most of the people in it would be paired up already, and most of the rest would be too old or too young to be looking for a partner. (Neanderthals grew up a bit faster than we do nowadays in the West: a Neanderthal girl might have her first child at the age of fifteen.)

 How, then, could a Neanderthal youngster find a partner? 

 It seemed likely to me that the adolescents would leave their bands and go off to find a mate in a different group. In SONG HUNTER I assumed that it was the boys who left, but there are theories that it was the girls who left home (which is commoner amongst humans, after all).

 That wasn’t the only possibility I considered. Gorilla groups, for instance, have a dominant male who mates with all the females.

 What if it was like that?

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Cave men?

 Yes, some primitive people, both Neanderthal and Homo sapiens, do seem to have stayed in caves from time to time.

 Unfortunately Doggerland, which is the land of SONG HUNTER:

(this map is of the area much later than 40,000 years ago when the book is set, but you get the idea)was home to cave bears as well as Neanderthals, and cave bears lived in...

...but the name gives the answer away, doesn't it.

 Cave bears were about as large as the largest bears alive nowadays, and on the whole primitive people seem not to have argued too loudly about squatting rights when they found a bear in residence in a cave.

 Well, who would want to live in a cave, anyway? Caves are damp and cold and dark.

 They’re pretty rare, too. I mean, where’s your nearest cave? Is it within commuting distance of school, or the office?

 All right. So where would you live, then?

 And how would you keep warm?


Saturday, 12 January 2013

How can you make a spear if there are no trees?

40,000 years ago there were almost no trees in what is now Britain.

The only prospect of getting wood to make a spear haft was if a river brought down some drift-wood: and once the rivers had frozen over for the winter there was no chance of that.

But people couldn't live without spears, could they? Spears were vital for providing food. What would the chances of surviving an attempt to kill a great aurochs bull:


 or a giant deer, or a mammoth, with a hand-held blade?

Whatever the people did, they left no traces for us to find. But of course that doesn't stop us guessing.

What's your guess?


Friday, 11 January 2013

No smoke without wood?

How can you make a fire without wood?

 Well, you can burn almost anything organic if you can get it dry. Grass burns easily, but it’s gone in a flash. Reeds last a bit longer, and if they're still a bit damp then they’re good for making smoke to cure hides.

 Dung will burn well, and it's easy to collect dung - as long as a lion or hyena doesn’t eat you while you’re searching for it.

 Bones can be made to burn, but you have to get the fire so hot it’s really not worth the trouble.

 If you’re very lucky your territory might have deposits of coal or peat or lignite (which is half way between coal and peat).

 But most of us won’t be that lucky.

 It’s a good job we can cure hides to keep ourselves warm, isn’t it? Or, Mr (or Ms) Homo sapiens (the name means wise man, after all), do you have a better solution to the problem?


Thursday, 10 January 2013

Could you and your mates bring down a giant wild bull with your bare hands?

 Well, could you? Probably you could, if there were enough of you and you didn’t all run away.


The chances are that some of you would get hurt, though.

 Neanderthal skeletons show signs of many broken bones, and the pattern of these injuries echo the injuries sustained by rodeo riders, who also, of course, get up close to wild animals.

 In SONG HUNTER my heroine Mica is terrified of the great bulls, but she still has to go out hunting for them.

 It’s hunt or starve for her people.

 Which would you choose?


Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Teeth? Who needs ’em?

 We’ve lost most of the Neanderthals. All the soft tissues have gone, and we don’t have a single complete skeleton of any individual.

 Some of the skeletons we’ve got have lost the teeth, as well as their soft parts. In fact we know that some Neanderthals lost their teeth years before they died.

 But how could they survive without teeth? We know that Neanderthals ate mostly meat because for quite a lot of the time there wasn’t much else around they could eat. But you need teeth if you’re going to eat steak, especially as a lot of it would have had to be eaten raw.

 So how did a toothless Neanderthal manage?

 Well, our best guess is that he or she used someone else’s teeth. That is, someone else chewed their meat for them and then passed it to them to swallow.

 Yes, I think it’s gross, too.

 But, hey, it makes for some interesting relationships when you're writing a book like SONG HUNTER.


Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Why does a glutton make the best hat ever?


A glutton is another name for a wolverine. They’re sort of enormous extra-fierce weasels:


 They’re famously greedy and bad-tempered, but they’re nice and furry. Glutton fur is specially good for hats because ice from the moisture in your breath refuses to form on it.

So if you can catch a glutton, kill it, skin it, then cure the skin, you’ve got the very best cold-weather hat ever; and you can give it to your sweetheart, if you are lucky enough to have one.

 Just don’t expect all that much gratitude, that’s all.


Monday, 7 January 2013

Can you survive without being alive?

 Let’s see. You could survive in a darkened cell for quite a long time, couldn’t you, as long as you had warmth, food and water.

 But in that case how much of you would be alive? Your body would be ticking over, but what would your brain be doing?

 What if the imprisoned-in-the-dark person was an artist? Would he be more alive than someone without such a developed imagination?

 Might an artist be more alive in the darkened room than out in the world?

 Or just a bit madder?

Sunday, 6 January 2013

How to make a fur coat fit for a king.

 First catch your bear.

Then kill it.

Skin the carcase, and then scrape off any scraps of meat or fat. You’ll find lots of fat, so you’ll have to scrape it again and again.

 Rub the underside of the pelt all over with raw brains.

 Allow it to get really smelly. This is important, because this is how you’ll know the skin is curing.

 Scrape off any brains that haven’t soaked in.

 Allow the pelt to dry, keeping it moving all the time so that it dries supple.

 Smoke the pelt over an open fire.

 Now tie the pelt round you with strips of leather, and do a twirl.

 There we are.

Majestic, or what?


Saturday, 5 January 2013

Why did mammoths have bent tusks?

The British climate 40,000 years ago was cold, windy, and fairly dry. There would have been plenty of ice about, but, for most of the year, not that much snow .

 When there was snow on the ground, though, it would have made things very difficult for the grass-eating animals.

 A small animal like a vole could make tunnels under the snow to allow it to get to the leaves and roots; but what if you were hungrier, and needed access to huge areas of grass?

 Well, unless you owned a snow plough you’d have to move south.

 Strangely enough, there was one sort of animal which did own a snow-plough.

In fact, a pair of them.

They were made, rather wonderfully, of ivory.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Could you survive a new Ice Age?


We have no proof that any human in England has ever survived the coldest parts of an Ice Age. Humans seem to have abandoned what the prehistorians call Doggerland (which included England) as the weather grew colder.

 What about you, though? You, the modern man with the mobile phone and the ready-meals? Could you survive an ice age?

 Well, you could buy yourself some very good clothing, and I’m sure someone would make and sell you a nice warm house to live in.

 It’d have to be a house you can pick up and carry, though, or it’d be likely to end up under several hundred metres of ice.

 Your car won’t be much good on all that ice, but of course you’ll get a snowmobile.

You’ll be in trouble if you fancy a slice of bread, though: there’ll be no soil available in which to sow the wheat to make the flour, and it’ll be much too cold for anything to grow anyway.

 I suppose you might be all right as long as there were people further south to grow your food.

 But what would you give them in return?

Thursday, 3 January 2013

How do you creep up on a seal?

 The Neanderthal people of SONG HUNTER live in an inland valley, but at least one of my Neanderthals must have come from far away because he bears the name of a sea-creature.

 He’s called Seal.

 I relied a great deal on the knowledge of the Inuit people of the far north when I was writing SONG HUNTER. The Inuit have had to overcome similar challenges to my Neanderthals: they've both lived in a cold climate with, until recently, only occasional access to sources of wood.

 This is how you creep up on a seal.

 The first thing you have to do is wait for your seal to go to sleep. The problem then is that seals only sleep for about a minute at a time: and obviously you can't run far in a minute.

Your big advantage is that although seals are brilliant at spotting any sort of movement, they're not much good at all at noticing anything completely still.

So what you have to do is play What’s the time, Mr Seal?

 Step forward...and then freeze before it opens its eyes.


 (You’ll know when you have to stop moving because just before it opens its eyes a muscle will twitch in its neck.)


 Well done.

 Now. Fancy some raw seal liver?


Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Are you descended from Neanderthals?

Svante Pääbo, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, has been studying Neanderthal DNA. His findings have shown that Neanderthals didn’t become completely extinct after all, but became assimilated into Homo sapiens (that's modern man, ie you) through inter-breeding.

Svante Pääbo's results suggest that between 1 – 4 % of the DNA of all humans who aren’t sub-Saharan Africans has its root in Neanderthals.

 I don’t know about you, but to me that's both thrilling and a great honour - and it does explain my occasional urges to club people over the head with the leg-bone of an ox, too.*

I suppose I ought to say here that Dr Andrea Manica of Cambridge University believes that any similarities between human and Neanderthal DNA is probably the result of a single shared ancestor half a million years ago.

 I know I’m being unreasonable, but personally I think that Dr Manica is being a bit of a spoil-sport.

 *Joke! Mostly.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Why do people keep singing all the time?

 Well, why do you sing? Because you’re happy? In case auld acquaintance should be forgot? Because you have a tune stuck in your head? Because you want to be famous? Because it annoys your brother so much?

 Do you ever find yourself singing the song of a robin? Or barking like a dog?


 Well, that’s a relief.

 So, why not?

 Why do you sing?