In this episode, guests Claire Askew and Rowland Kao chat about vintage stuff, lost meanings and viral transmission.
Claire is an award-winning poet and novelist. Her debut novel, 'All the Hidden Truths', featuring the character DI Birch, won the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress, and was selected as a Times Crime Book of the Month. The second novel in the DI Birch series, 'What You Pay For' was published in August 2019 and the latest, 'Cover Your Tracks', came out this summer.
Rowland is Chair of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science at the Roslin Institute, part of the University of Edinburgh. He is a member of the Science Advisory Council at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and is working with Public Health Scotland on coronavirus modelling.
Each episode of Sharing things is a conversation between two members of our university community. It could be a student, a member of staff or a graduate, the only thing they have in common at the beginning is Edinburgh. We start with an object. A special, treasured or significant item that we have asked each guest to bring to the conversation. What happens next is sometimes funny, sometimes moving and always unexpected.
Find out more at www.ed.ac.uk/sharing-things-podcast
Welcome to Sharing things, the podcast that takes a closer look at the people that make up our University of Edinburgh community. Each episode starts with two invited guests and an object, which can be something personal, treasured or significant. It's something that unlocks a story and starts a conversation. We take it from there. I'm Richenda, your new host, conversational guide and a final year medical student. Today, as with all this season's recordings, I'm sat at my kitchen table in central Edinburgh. In this episode, we get to know Rowland Kao, a mathematical biologist and COVID-19 commentator, and Claire Askew, an author and poet. Let's take a listen. [theme music]
So hello and welcome to Sharing things. So today I have Rowland and Claire here with me and I think we'll just start by talking about where exactly it is you guys are calling in from.
Claire, you go first.
Okay. So I am in my spare bedroom, in my flat in Stockbridge in Edinburgh and surrounded by all sorts of weird and wonderful things, because this is usually where my partner and I put all of our junk and debris and things we don't want to look at, and it's kind of become my office from which I phone out into the world now.
Very similar for me, actually. So I don't live in Edinburgh, I live outside in a place called Torphichen, which is a little village famous for three things. Number one it has the oldest Neolithic monument in Scotland just outside it. Number two, it has the original home of the Knights of the Hospital, in Scotland, the Hospitallers, who you know, help people on their way to the Holy Land during the Crusades. And number three, not more than 100 metres away from me, is the former home of one of the Bay City Rollers. [laughter] Most importantly. And people do come here to go look at it.
I guess our first question properly is, what object did you guys bring along today?
Well, I'm actually wearing mine. It is a it is a t-shirt with the cover of the Rolling Stones., 'It's all over now' single on it and I found it in a vintage shop in Carlisle. My parents live just outside Carlisle and there used to be this tiny, tiny vintage shop called Strawberry Fields which anyone who's from Carlisle will probably remember it used to be behind the Citadel in this alleyway. It was owned by this incredible man who had dreadlocks in his beard and who was this sort of strange vintage-selling hermit guy. And the shop was always in complete disarray and I would go in and kind of rummage through huge piles of clothes which sort of smelled dubious and, and often were dubious. And then one day I found this t-shirt, this Rolling Stones t-shirt. This was when I was about 21 I think and it's an item of clothing I've been wearing ever since and enjoying. So that is my object.
Okay, and how come you chose it? Was it that you really liked the Rolling Stones or...?
Um, well...to be honest, the choosing of an object for this was incredibly difficult when I heard about the concept of the podcast I was, I thought well this is completely up my street because I'm a great keeper of sentimental objects. But obviously that's a problem when it comes to choosing one because I have so many and I settled upon this shirt because I think it kind of connects to a lot of things that I'm interested in. So as well as being a writer I also, my kind of side hustle is that I sell vintage clothing and jewellery online. I have a little Etsy shop and I've been doing that for 11 years and so I'm really interested in sort of slow fashion and sustainability in fashion and just vintage things in general. And I also do really like Rolling Stones. And I really like rummaging through shops and junk rooms and you know salvage yards and stuff for things. And I thought that was kind of a potentially interesting thing to bring to the table as well. So I just thought it takes a lot of boxes basically. And it's also just a really cool t shirt.
And then do you go back to Carlisle often or is that sort of, or is it like the t-shirt is a connection to there as well.
Yeah, it definitely, it feels like a connection to that that place and which I do visit a lot and all, most of my family are in Cumbria, somewhere in Cumbria. So I sort of feel like a Cumbrian in exile a little bit sometimes being in Edinburgh, but it also connects me to kind of that time in my life when I was just sort of discovering adulting and finding out that I could, you know, go and rummage around in charity shops and find interesting things and sort of create a style and identity for myself, which was a very kind of exciting time. So it also reminds me of that in a nice nostalgic way.
Yeah what was it that got you properly started on the vintage stuff because like now you have your own sort of online shop for it. What got you started off with it?
I mean, the Rolling Stones thing might be, might be a sort of clue to the fact that I really like sort of 'dad music' [laughter].
So I think as a teenager, while all my peers were listening to the killers, I was listening to Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and the Small Faces and bands that my dad liked, basically. And because I was into vintage music, I then got into vintage style, you know, Stevie Nicks, is like, probably my style icon, and I realised that you can't find that stuff, that kind of that, look, you can't find that kind of thing in Primark so I had to look elsewhere and find the sort of secondhand places, basically.
Were you Rowland? Do you ever buy anything vintage? Or is that not really your realm of stuff?
I must confess, I buy very little of my own clothes. I tend to be dressed. Maybe that's one of those personal sharing things that perhaps I should not be but from my wife's point of view, she buys most of them, she's quite into sustainable things as well in a slightly different way. She tends to buy like this t-shirt, for example, is from a sustainable shop, fairtrade sellers and such. So we do have some secondhand things and I would definitely agree with Claire that that is, it is something we should do more of because there's so much stuff out there. One of the things you really notice when you go to developing countries, so countries in Africa, so some of the work I do has been has been there, is just how much of our clothes end up on streets being sold again. It's just huge volumes of stuff. It's just incredible. And, you know, there's obviously side issues to that as well, which is that they're being sold there so all the local production of clothes takes a heavy hit, because what people are doing is they're buying all the stuff that we have that then go on to to them and ruin the local industries. So there's, you know, obviously all sorts of issues there. In a similar way, I do have several very old t-shirts, and things so while perhaps not vintage, I do hold on to them for a very long time.
You know, I'm the same I have a lot of, like, band 'merch', it's the only t-shirts, I ever actually justify buying because I find t-shirts quite boring things to have. But I'm just always worried about the fact that as soon as they get a hole in them, I think I'm going to be a bit emotionally distraught because you really get attachments to clothes. So I don't know why, I think because you wear them so often and it's gonna be a sad day when one of those one of those goes.
I mean I have a Led Zeppelin t-shirt that is literally kind of fallen to rags. It's unwearable. But it's still in my drawer, kind of in pieces, and I will never ever get rid of it. So yeah, but I know that I know the anguish that comes with that. Definitely.
So I brought a-- I'll show you. I brought this-- Okay so what are they are is they're... um.. I-- well so one of the things about them is I actually don't quite know what they are. They're they're sort of gold luck charms, which were given to me when I was very little by my grandmother. So my grandmother was, lived in Taiwan and I haven't seen her very much she she passed away some years ago, but when I was three, my dad took me and my mom, the rest of my family stayed behind with my other grandparents. And they're sort of they're-- so one of them certainly is pure gold. They're very, very thin so it's not like they're very valuable. But there's sort of a, I don't know, I guess I can explain as we go along but there's sort of a mix of things there. There's a bit of family in there. There's a bit of thinking about the future. There's a bit of all sorts of things, I guess. And part of it is, is in fact the fact that I in a way feel very disconnected from my roots, because I know so little about them in the same way that I so know so little about my dad's family because he was a refugee in the Second World War and he left China, I think 1948 in the middle of the Communist Revolution, when things were-- when the government was changing, and then sort of travelled around and ended up in Canada where he met my mom.
So is it his mum that gave you those gold charms or is it the other side?
Yes, it was my dad's mom, so I've only I only ever met her a few times. So one of the really interesting things about it is that she was probably one of the last people in the world to have her feet bound. So, you know, there's this old Chinese tradition of when you were well-off, that the women had their feet bound to make them smaller, so they would look more elegant and she would have had this done towards the end of the period, when this was still being done. It was typically done by people who were more well-off, but my dad's family was very, very poor but they must have had some kind of slightly higher class aspirations or back-up, I don't really know. So there's this weird sort of connection to what seems like a very distant past, but for me, is not that far away. She actually came to live with us for a while. So I told a slight lie. I did know her for a bit, but she could not speak any English and I cannot speak any Chinese and she tended to live this very separate life with us. And she stayed with us for I think it must have been about a year but even in that time, I never really actually got to know her, which is one of those great shames really - being disconnected.
Yeah, what was it like having somebody that's, yeah, in your house and is your family but you can't communicate with them?
It was, I mean, I was pretty young at the time so you sort of on one level just sort of accept it. It's just what was one of the things was there was it was a bit odd, right? I mean, you have this person there who you know is connected to you, who my dad was really the only person who could communicate with her. So I think it was it was an interesting thing but in in a weird way, it actually didn't affect me that much at the time, you grow up later, and you think about these things. But at the time, it's just you're a kid, and you just do what a kid does.
So why was it that you got given that was a special occasion?
I think it was just, um, there is-- Chinese people give gifts a lot, okay, so when you go to visit anybody, you'll get, be given something like, there's a good chance you'll be given something or certainly I was you'd be given bits of money so I still have in the weirdly 'can't throw it away but for no specified reason' n bits of essentially worthless Chinese money.
Yeah for listeners, I think, yeah, maybe we should describe it. So it's two little gold charms on a red...
The two gold charms are about the size of what would I say, um, maybe three centimetres across and they're imprinted with images. One of them has a lotus flower, with some writing behind it. And Chinese is also something I do not know, the language, the other one has a bird and more writing, but I recognise one as being our family name. So there is there is meaning associated with it, which again, it's both important in a sense, but I that has that disconnection, you know, it has lost meaning. And I guess that's the other thing, which I think about sometimes just, you know how quickly things that are important and that are being sort of lost if you don't hold on to them.
What Rowland's just said about lost meaning is really interesting because that's kind of a thing that I like about, about buying secondhand and old things. You know that they have had at least one previous owner and beyond that you don't know anything, unless you find a clue. And one of my favourite things is to, you know, find a coat in a charity shop and then look in the breast pocket and find a shopping list or something that's been that's been left there that's kind of a little clue as to the item's story from before it knew you. But I've-- I think it's interesting because I because I sell vintage things as well people who buy from me will often ask me what, you know, where did you find this? Where did you source it? What's it's story? And usually, I don't know, because it's come to me secondhand as well but I don't have that sort of curiosity to know for sure where something came from, if anything I like the lost meaning and I like the mystery. I don't know if that's to do with being a writer because it means I can fill in the story for myself. You know, I can imagine it history for this item. Something about enjoying the mystery, and if you knew then it would be fixed forever whereas if you never find out then you can think on it for as long as you want.
Yeah. Yeah, there's a sort of, there's a mystique to it, isn't there? I was just asking, have you ever seen that sort of, I just came across this recently it was in the paper, about people who take vintage film. They take 35 millimetre film and they get it developed. So there's all these bits of film which are lying around which nobody's ever developed, and then they develop them and they put them online and you've got these images of people which are, or things or places, which are completely disconnected from everything else. And you're right, there's that ability to fill in the gaps with whatever it is that your imagination is saying is in there. I do wonder if in a similar way that is a lot of the mystique to it, right? There's a slightly voyeuristic bit but there is also a bit about filling in the story with the stories that you want.
I find there's something sad about films and photos as well, when I go into, I think, particularly when it's in a charity shop and you find someone else's photo, you know, you sometimes find albums of black and white photos, or you find film, undeveloped films, whatever. You think, once upon a time, these were important memories that someone wanted to make and record and now they've ended up kind of untethered from their maker and untethered from their their owner, you know, and, and I have been known to buy old photo albums, because there's something about wanting to rehome those people. That maybe sounds really nuts, but to kind of, I don't know, yeah, as as a because I'm, I'm able to write stories I can I feel like I can do something with those people I can turn them into characters or whatever, and then they don't just those memories don't just get lost.
So have you ever heard of a writer named Philip K Dick?
But so much of his writing is about essentially, what does it mean to be human? And what what is the, the the what is the meaning of memory is one of the things and what is the meaning of reality? And so one of those things is, now I'm thinking more about Blade Runner the movie at the moment that was sort of more of the connection, where Deckard, the lead character is looking at these pictures and a lot of it is about what, what defines him. Is it the memories of what he thinks he knows? So in this case, what was he thinking more about one of the other characters in the story, but, you know, there's this relationship between who you are and what your, what your past is. And I think, I think that whole thing about, you know, what, what is the importance of these, these, these memories, in terms of who you are is a really interesting one.
Yeah, and I think photographs, in particular, I think are really interesting, because I'm fascinated by the idea that you can create a false memory that you don't really have by looking at photographs, you know, the idea that you can have a relative you've never met, but you think you have memories of that person because you've seen photos of them.
I find that quite fascinating. And also quite frightening. I think that's something that Philip K Dick was really interested in is, is what's, what is real? And what if we made up for ourselves? And how can we tell the difference?
That one in particular, especially now that with digital photography, and video being so easy, you know, people's lives are recorded in incredible detail and it is really hard now for our kids to know, did they actually remember this or are they remembering the thing that the image or the video is telling them? And it's almost impossible, it really is.
Well, there's this is great meme.
There's this is great meme going around at the moment. I don't know if you've seen it of 'I'm gonna tell my kids this was dot dot dot'. So it'll be a picture of, you know, someone who I don't know... it'll be a picture of a couple, a really unlikely couple who are very much not Posh and Becks, for example. And it will say, 'I'm going to tell my kids this was Posh and Becks, and it'll be like the Queen and Prince Philip [laughter].
So this is that kind of really interesting playing with, you know, the ability of the memory to sort of record things that aren't real and your ability to play tricks on the memories of those around you, which I think is kind of mysterious and creepy and cool.
Yes creepy as well [laughs], I think definitely some of it is, especially if parents actually do this to their kids [laughs]. But no, no, I think it is really, I think memory is one of those really, really interesting things in all sorts of ways. And again, going back to the sort of the objects things is that these things have a certain meaning to me and at some point I'm gonna pass them on to my daughters. I'll probably give one to each one of them and I suppose for them, the meanings will have very little to do with my grandmother who they've never met. And they-- well what will they have to do with that? I don't really know, because I've shown them to them. I've sort of told them what they are. But you know, the sort of passing on of, of objects, I think is really quite important, even if, even if they've lost the other bits of it. Right? If they lost lots of other bits of family. [Theme music]
Both of you do jobs that mean that you perform a bit. I just wondered what is it that say motivates you to do that and to keep doing that?
So, so it's not actually central to my job except in the sense of going to conferences and giving talks. But I do a fair bit of it and actually, I do quite enjoy it. Now when I was-- up until I was a postgraduate I was-- I hated it. I was I was absolutely terrified every single time I had to talk in front of people. And I think one of the reasons why is I'm sort of a natural introvert, as many scientists are, right? I mean, it's a fairly typical scientist thing. But I think what I realised there's a few things that happened. I was, I was doing a, I was in New Zealand, I was doing this postdoc while I was there. I did this one talk and I sort of made friends with some of the other students and postdocs there and they all voted for me as the best non-student talk in the conference. So in a completely unmerited way, I got the prize for the best non-student talk. Once I got the sense that I could do it, I started to realise there's an element of performance to it, okay, that you're actually not projecting necessarily you although that in the end becomes part of it. So in a weird sort of circular way, I got better at it because I started to think it wasn't about me, it was what I was talking about. But once I relaxed, it became much easier to put more of me into it. Right? And I found that I do enjoy it, because it's a way of connecting to people. So it's, it's just a way of viewing it as a conversation. You know, you're sort of talking to them. So I tend to do my talks in a sort of very off the cuff way, like I don't practice, because I like that sort of sense of spontaneity, that comes from thinking, okay, this is what I want to say and then this is what happens. So yeah, I guess that's something that I don't know how... I don't know how other people do it but that's, that's the way it works for me anyway.
Yeah, I'm kind of--what is it that that makes you understand that it's gone well, or badly? And I don't, I don't quite know what that is. But there's there's something isn't there that you can, you can feel in a room. I certainly know when I'm performing poetry in particular, because I think poetry can really connect with people on quite a sort of lizard brain level, sometimes. I don't know what it is but sometimes you'll be halfway through a poem and you think I've just got them, I've just got them, you know, they they are with me, you know, everyone's with me in this room. And I don't know what it is that that comes off an audience that helps you to understand that. But it's probably the best feeling in the world. To know that you're kind of in the centre of this room, and everyone in the room is is sort of with you on a journey that has been started just by using words that you made up in your head, you know, there's some kind of amazing, strange magic about that. But at the same time, you can also be on the stage in the centre of that room and think I am absolutely tanking and I have no idea why. And yeah, I'm really interested to know what that is but I don't-- we have some sort of antenna or something that tells us one way or the other. And you're usually right aren't you, I don't think I have rarely ever thought, oh, this is going really well and then had someone tell me, I that I didn't, you know, I didn't enjoy that. Usually when I thought this is going really well people will come up and be like, 'oh, that was amazing' afterwards so it's fairly, it's a fairly accurate reading as well. But how we do it? I don't know.
So do you think part of the doing well, is is actually a bit of when we think things are going well we actually do things better?
Yeah, I guess so. I think I assume when you feel that things are going well, then you lose your inhibitions a bit and and so maybe give it your all a bit more. I mean, like you I also hated performing for a long time and still get really bad stage fright sometimes, especially if it's going to be a big audience or, or a gig that feels particularly significant. Yeah, it's a it's a weird, mysterious thing. The first few times I did it, it was a case of right, I will go on I will read my poem that I've been allotted to read, and then I will run away. I'll do it as quickly as I can. I don't care if I do it well, I just want to sort of do it and get it over with. But then the longer you do it, the more you start thinking 'oh, I wonder how I could tweak this, I wonder how I could do it better?' you know, 'how can I, how can I get people to laugh?', because getting people to laugh at your jokes is incredibly validating. Yeah, so the longer you do it, I never I've never stopped disliking it but I've learned how to how to sort of try and get as much enjoyment from it as I can, I guess.
So would you describe yourself, do you think, as an introvert or extrovert or that is too simple?
I am definitely 100% introvert as I think many writers are. I know a lot of writers, especially novelists, because I think poets know that there is always a performance element, not required but sort of expected whereas novelists have the option to hole themselves up in a room and never come out if they want to work.
[sound effect] And then everything stopped, and we couldn't fix it. So we reconvene two weeks later to continue our Sharing things conversation.
Welcome back, guys it's been about two weeks.
And yeah, in that two weeks, you guys have been up to like some fairly big stuff. So I know, Rowland, you'd said that you were gonna do it was sort of online fringe performance, not performance, but panel as well.
And then Claire, your third book came out yesterday?
Yes, yes. Yesterday was publication day for book number three. Yeah. So that was exciting.
Yeah, that feels for both of you guys because that's some pretty big stuff.
I would argue that Claire's is bigger than mine by a fair margin [laughs]. So well done. That's, that's fantastic.
Thank you, it felt very weird, I have to say, because launching, normally launching a book in bulk, especially in August, because so far all of my books have come out in August in Edinburgh. So normally, launching a book involves doing at least two events a day, you know, and seeing a lot of people and having a lot of conversations and doing a lot of Q and A's in which I suddenly find out a lot of stuff about the book that I didn't know, from the questions that people ask me about it. And none of that's happened, because we're all still largely inside. So I've had to figure out ways to, to tell people that my book exists without meeting them. So that's been quite an interesting and challenging thing, but, but a kind of good experience to have.
So this is not at all a planted question here, um, can you tell us about your book? [laughter]
Yeah, so um, so it's the third in a crime series, starring my fictional Detective Inspector Helen Birch, who has had a fairly difficult caseload over the past two books, let's say. And in this, at the beginning of this book, a man comes into her police station to report his two elderly parents missing. And, and they're both in their 80s and she assumes this is sort of hopefully a kind of open and shut case where it's gonna turn out that they've, you know, moved off to the countryside, or they've, they've got lost in their, you know, they just need to be found. But then when she digs into this case, she discovers that there's an awful lot more to it and there are a lot of family skeletons coming out of closets and things. So it's a sort of, it's a bit of a pot boiler, it kind of starts slowly and quietly looking like one thing and then develops into something entirely different. And it's hard to say anything else about it without spoiler-ing it. [Laughter]
Is it okay to go backwards a bit? Because you're talking about writing this is sort of reminding me when we were talking about that the thing we left off with something actually I was really interested in what your answer would be, because I remember you're talking about being both an author and a poet, and about the differences between them, and I thought that was like a really interesting dichotomy. I was wondering if, if you remember what you were saying, you can actually go back and say, because we were talking about the difference between performance as a poet and understanding what that was, and being a book author and where it's not the same and I just thought, oh, wow, that sounds really interesting. So, so I've been dying for two weeks to ask you that question. [Laughter]
Yeah. Poetry, poetry feels like more of a living thing to me, especially in performance. I think it's much easier to perform as a poet because poetry contains so much of what makes a performance great. It's, it means a lot about sound and rhythm, and wordplay and puns and all that kind of thing. And it's very easy to connect with an audience through a poem, I think, whereas people are used to reading fiction in their own head, you know? So when, when you read it to them, I think it can be more difficult, not not impossible, but, you know, you can perform prose in a very engaging way, which I kind of aim to do, but I think it's harder to sort of keep people's attention and, and have the sort of rise and fall and natural connection that poetry allows. It's more challenging with a novel definitely.
So do you think all poetry should be spoken aloud at some point then? Or is that overstating it?
I mean, I think what I've often felt about poetry is, if you hear it performed, you get a new and different appreciation of it. I don't think poetry has to be performed and I know that there are a lot of poets who will not want me to say that because they're incredibly shy and would never want to go on the stage you know. But, but there are I have definitely had experiences with poems where I mean, Allen Ginsberg's Howl is a perfect example. When I first read that in university as an undergrad I looked at it and thought, what on earth is this complete drivel? To be honest. Then I listened to a recording of him reading it, and it was like a light bulb went on over my head and I suddenly thought, I get this, this is actually I now understand this is a masterwork of literature. I think performance can can lend just so much oomph to a poem.
I mean, I wasn't necessarily thinking it has to be the author who does it. Just that you know, it, I guess, I guess more is that whether you're thinking that most poetry at least, gains something from the, the the allowed reading of it, that people do get that extra sense, more so. So it could be somebody else it could even be, yeah, just just anybody really?
Yeah. Yeah, I think I think, I mean, I'm a real geek about poetry. So I find it... I feel like poems contain kind of Easter eggs that you don't necessarily see unless you read them aloud. You know, little rhymes or half rhymes or, or, you know, assonance, or whatever, that when you read them aloud, you shouldn't suddenly go, oh, that kind of that speaks to me in a different way. Or that well, that's, that's pleasing to the ear in a way that I wouldn't have known if I had just read it in my head to myself. Yeah. So I like that idea of there being such hidden, hidden layers within the performance, you know, locked locked within performance.
Yeah. So a friend of mine, is a, so I'm a mathematical biologist, and a friend of mine, who's also a mathematical biologist, is also an author. It's not quite the same contrast but one of the things that she said she was on, like she was saying about her, the two strands of her career is that you do the writing, a lot of it is about layers and nuance, and uncovering layers through the writing. But the mathematics is about clarity, where everything has a single as much as possible everything as a single meaning. Right. And she says that one of the things she finds interesting is that, that dichotomy, that sort of tension between the two halves of what she wants to do.
Speaking of research, though, so your research you sometimes present it or, yeah, with the panel that you did this week?
I think it is different in the sense that if you're talking about the research, it is very much about trying to make the message as single layered as you can. It does definitely have that performance element because I think one of the things and you know, now speaking to the potential researchers or the researchers who might be listening, when you're constructing a paper, like a research paper, there's a narrative. There has to be a narrative to it, you're not just presenting results, you really are presenting a story. The story is different from saying what what a novelist would do but nonetheless, there has to be a continuous thread, a logical thread where each step leads to the next step. And if it doesn't lead to the next step, you leave it out. Right? And so I think that, from that point of view, it's similar. And that also applies to when you talk about it, right? And even more so because obviously, when you're talking to people, you know the attention span is lower, right? You can't go backwards and forwards the way you can when you're reading a paper. So that narrative has to be really, really clear. And it doesn't mean that you're constructing a story in a fictional sense, that you're not trying to sell somebody, what you're trying to do is you're trying to present the evidence in a way that they can make their own decision. And I think that's really important is that sort of it's, it's not, it shouldn't be advocacy, in the sense of, I have my point of view, and I'm trying to convince you or assuming that's not my view. It's advocacy in the sense of this is what the evidence is leading to me to deciding including all the positives and negatives, to the extent that I can do it. I think people tend to miss one of those two things a lot of the time. They either miss to present both sides of it, or they miss the advocacy bit of it. And if you don't have both, you either-- you lose everybody in one of two ways.
I did a writing workshop with the very great essayist and reviewer Daniel Mendelsohn at last year's book festival and he said that literally anything can be interesting and he cited an example of an essayist who wrote about sand. That was his that was his subject that he was geeky about. And and Daniel Mendelsohn was saying, you know that these are among the best essays I've ever read and yet they're just about sand. And he was saying, you know, that it's really important to make sure that that you get across the reason why you are passionate about that thing. You know, what, what is it that has interested you, because if you can talk about what's interested you about that thing other people can connect to that interest. [Theme music]
I want to ask Rowland, if I may, and this is connected to nothing that we've been talking about, but because of the work that you do, I think last time we met, you mentioned that you have been sort of diverted to doing some work around Coronavirus?
And I wanted to ask what you're doing and what you're finding and how that's going.
I'm so-- So what I work in, so I work in sort of how connections and populations influence disease transmission. So it's broadly speaking what people call network science. And when people think about networks, they tend to think about things like Facebook or Twitter, or where the networks are about the interactions that way, or social networks in terms of friendship networks, things like that. If you think about it, networks are about information. Okay? How does information get from place to place? And you can think about that information as being a rumour, okay, so if I know something about somebody, and I tell somebody else, how does that rumour spread? And how does it get from one place to the other? In the same way you can look at viruses or bacteria as information about that's almost literally what it is, right? A virus is genetic information, where the act of transmission is about moving that genetic information around. So the analogy is almost perfect. But what that means is you can use the same kind of methods, no matter what disease you're looking at. So you know, whereas I typically will look at things like TB, so tuberculosis in cows and badgers is one of the things I work on, or something called foot and mouth disease, you can apply that same kind of idea of how does the virus or the bacteria move through the population, what influences it to Coronavirus. So what we're doing, among other things, is we're looking at the entire population of Scotland. So we have this massive, massive agent base model, you have 67 odd million agents in the bottle, they move around the country, according to the patterns of commuting, which we know from things like the Office of National Statistics, brings us information about travel to work. We have mobility data from things like Facebook and Google and then we have all the different workplaces, locations to homes and population numbers. And you can basically feed through the simulation, the movement of the disease, and get an idea of, for example, how much of transmission of COVID-19 is going to be in a sort of a local area, and how much of it makes a jump from place to place. And that's really important right now, because, you know, as you know, at the point at which we're doing this recording, Aberdeen has been in a local lockdown for a little while now. One of the really critical questions is, when do you want to do that, right? I mean, these are big steps, right, to take an area and change the way people are doing things back to the way we were a few months ago. So the question is things like, when should you do it? Like, when is the situation bad enough that is this is really important. How big an area should you be doing it under? And how strong do you have to make the restrictions? So by understanding those things, you get an idea of just how much lockdown is necessary to keep the virus from basically jumping from place to place. So that's the big thing. And then there's a mix of sort of computer simulations, math and statistics that go in with it. And a lot of people who are much better at actually doing the stuff that i am.
I think I have a question kind of linked to that and to try and tie you guys together. And I want you guys to brainstorm it out. I want an actually genuine answer and maybe a book out of it at the end, which is is there anything that Claire would write about a sort of detective novel that would stem from Rowland's work because yours is very much about sort of scientific detective work and then Claire you write about detectives so what would the novel be?
Well, it's really interesting that you should say that because Rowland just used the words foot and mouth, and I have just finished writing a novel, which in in a sort of, it takes a look backwards at 2001 and the Scottish/Northern English Foot and Mouth outbreak. Yeah, so that's a really, really weird coincidence. So I've been doing a lot of reading about foot and mouth and the book is, is kind of the story of a man who was employed as a slaughterman in 2001 and who is kind of suffering from PTSD and various after effects from having had to do that work. And he kind of basically loses it one day and commits a criminal act and then my Detective Inspector has to sort of figure out the degree to which he is guilty, because to what extent is he is he sort of blacked out, is he acting, is he acting through trauma? And these are questions that I'm kind of really interested in, in my work about, you know, is anyone really a bad guy? Is there ever a sort of reasonable excuse for committing a violent act, you know, and, and so that the foot and mouth outbreak is the backdrop. So I've been reading loads about foot and mouth so that's really interesting that there's that kind of coincidental connection.
Well, one you've just sold yourself a book [laughs]. So actually, you could argue I got my start in doing all this in the 2001 foot and mouth disease. That's not quite true. So I, so I finished my increase in physics, I took a job in New Zealand working on animal diseases because I want to do something quite different. And then that led me led me to a job down in a place called the Institute for Animal Health, where I was working on mad cow disease. And it was in the middle of working on that, that the foot and mouth disease epidemic came up, and in a similar way to being diverted to doing Coronavirus now, at the time it got diverted to doing foot and mouth disease and obviously, that was a big emphasis of everything else.
And it's been really odd kind of reading and writing about foot and mouth in this COVID-19 lockdown time, because I've-- I grew up in Scottish Borders. And so I was I was kind of lived in the midst of that outbreak and lived up a valley in the middle of nowhere, where we had, you know, stations for vehicles to be stopped and have their wheels disinfected, and, you know, all that kind of thing. There were kind of travel restrictions and I've felt some sort of eerily eerie similarities during the COVID-19 restrictions that harks back to that time, so, yeah, so it's been a funny, it's been a funny novel to be writing at this time.
I mean, is it interesting that you say that because we can didn't get this funded in the end, but one of the things we were going to do with some colleagues of mine who work in sort of history and social science, is to look back at the 2001 epidemic, and the impact on people, you know, so not just the economic impacts, that is obviously one of the things, but also the impact on the individuals of what these restrictions do. I mean a large part of it is psychological, it is about a trauma, it is about PTSD, because even now, when you talk to farmers who've been through it, you know, having to slaughter their entire herds of animals and keep in mind, these are people who regularly have to slaughter animals, because that's part of what they do. But I think it was a sense of waste and the sense of loss that was associated with the devastation. There are some people for whom it is still a really big thing.
Yeah, certainly having having grown up in that area, I was 16 in 2001, and having seen the impact on a lot of neighbours, and you know, I mean, as you say, these are people whose whose animals were kind of their entire lives and they were very accustomed to, you know, the laws of nature and having to having to kill things but, but they were also incredibly sort of close to and connected to their animals and, and a lot of the time, you know, there were, there were farms, who hadn't even had a confirmed case it was just they were in close enough proximity to another farm that did have that. That meant that they went under the, under the--
Under the, I was gonna say under the guillotine, but that's not a very nice expression. But yes. Yeah, so so I feel like that's always followed me around as someone who was in the vicinity at the time and sort of saw how people were really emotionally affected by it. Devastated by it.
Well if you ever want the perspective from somebody who was involved in a different end of it, feel free to let me know.
That would be great [laughs].
The final question we always ask is, what one word would you use to summarise the object that you brought along? I don't know if you brought it along today as well or if that was just two weeks ago?
I think the word that I would use to describe my object is nostalgia. Because it's a, it's an object that really evokes for me a time in my life and a place that no longer exists, you know, the little, little vintage shop that is no more. And people, you know, I was with my little brother at the time, we were rummaging through bargain bins. And so whenever I wear this Rolling Stone shirt, I, I'm sort of transported back through time, which is, which feels really.
It's a very good explanation as well. And you can feel free to elaborate on yours as well Rowland if you'd like.
So I suppose the word I would use is not exactly-- I would use family. So my object was about family. It was from my grandmother. And it's about family in two ways. The first one is disconnection in the sense that it's an object which has possibly not as much meanings as it should, because I've lost so much of what you know, the family history is, but it's also about connection because it's from my grandmother, through my dad. My dad passed away last year so there's sort of a tinge of sadness associated with it and remembering the-- being, you know, three years old, and going to see my grandmother for the first time. So yeah, family, and hopefully [unintelligible] in the future as it goes forward to my to my daughters when they're a bit older.
And it's been great that you guys have not only joined us once but also joined us twice.
It's been a real pleasure.
Thank you for having me. Thank you for having both of us, it's been really nice chat. Really enjoyed it. [theme music]
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