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So how did the thalassoid Tiphobia come to play an important role in a novel? After I resigned from lecturing and researching in zoology and parasitology to ‘become a writer and broadcaster’ (de novo) I had no great desire also to become the archetypal starving writer in a garrett, so took on various copyediting jobs. A magnificent manuscript that came my way was David Brown’s definitive book on the Freshwater Snails of Africa and their Medical Importance (1994). A year or so later I was mulling over ideas for my fourth novel, Seaside Pleasures, in which one of the main characters was a retired malacologist, and I was looking for an unusual shell to put on the fictional Shell House — and by one of those Jungian ‘synchronicities’ that David himself so much enjoys, the hardback copy of his book arrived unexpectedly in the post. Tiphobia was an obvious choice (for reasons which I am sure are obvious to the readers of Malacological Bulletin — but the answer can be found on p. 296 of Seaside Pleasures!).
It was through conversations with David and his colleague Vaughan Southgate at the Natural History Museum that the science of snails and schistosomes became an integral and essential driving force in the story (hence Matt Ridley’s comment that ‘uniquely among modern novels, Seaside Pleasures makes real use of science rather than simply wearing science on its sleeve. A true two-culture achievement’). Elizabeth is a Bulinus expert, based at the NHM, and unusually for women scientists, even in the 1950s and ‘60s, she went out to Ethiopia and Eritrea on her own to collect Bulinus species: it was from David and his book that I learnt about the difficulties and pleasures of field-work at that period — the smells and sounds of the highlands and steamy lowlands; where to find tetraploid Bulinus; how to package live snails for air-mailing back to the NHM ... all those important details that impart credibility to fiction and draw the reader in.
And it is through Elizabeth’s experiences as a field-worker that one of the links to the Victorian side of novel, the story of Emily, the evangelical and dying wife of Philip Henry Gosse, is made. In his book, A Naturalist’s Sojourn in Jamaica (1846), Gosse writes a graphic account of his ‘naturalist’s work-room’, including a delightful description of preparing land-snails for the collection that he was making for the (then) British Museum. Elizabeth’s attempt to re-write this passage to describe her own field-working conditions also allows the reader to gain some useful insights into her past social and sexual life!
But the fictional and contemporary malacologist, Elizabeth Wilson, has retired to the south coast of Cornwall and of course she knows all about the digenean Cryptocotyle lingua, larvae of which infect Littorina littorea. She collects winkles from the shore below the house and takes them home in a jar of sea-water so that Jim, the mathematician who is working with her, and his art student friend, Matt, can watch the extraordinary phenomenon of infected snails shedding cercariae; Jim has the chance to see real live parasites, rather than working on theoretical models of schistosome epidemiology. And Matt, while mooching around on the shore with Jim, idly picks up some coloured L. obtusata, and soon gets hooked on collecting the various colours as the basis for an artwork. ‘Colour polymorphism’, ‘ecotypic variation’, ‘allozymes and speciation’: ‘Do you always talk like that when you’re together?’ Matt asks Jim.
But this isn’t a story ‘about’ science: it’s a story about people, several of whom happen to be scientists and — like you — carry on with their lives against the background of their normal work, which just happens to be scientific research.
Ann Lingard is also Dr Ann Lackie (see www.annlingard.com).
Seaside Pleasures (£8.99, p/b) is published by Littoralis Press and can be ordered through enqu...@littoralispress.co.uk, or (credit card) Beagle Direct (inf...@beagledirect.co.uk, tel. 01933 443862) or through Amazon or any book shop