Pangolin Issue 46

Termite Mound, Entebbe Botanical Gardens

It was the colour of the termite mound that turned my head. My brother and I were wandering through the Botanical Gardens in Entebbe a couple of weeks ago. He was busy identifying trees and I was happy to see some of their resident colobus monkeys. We have both seen plenty of termite mounds in our time, some of them even bigger than this one, but I hadn’t seen one with such bright green and orange algae growing on it before. Of course, my photo does not do the colours justice, although Ned gives us a good sense of its scale.

Unlike the lilies of the field in the Bible, that neither toil nor spin, the termite mound is a different parable, a testament to the hard work and cooperative community of myriads of little beasties. I am at a stage (v3.2 to be exact) in my second novel where I have a good sense of the shape of the whole thing in all its, ahem, ‘glory’, but I am finding it difficult to ensure that every word is doing its termite-like work.

It seems odd to choose something as staid and solid as a termite mound to illustrate this month’s pangolin, particularly as my five days in Uganda, centred on my nephew’s wedding, were so full of incident and joy. But it could be stretched to be a metaphor for the different psychic distances that writers employ in their work. I was signposted to Emma Darwin’s blog on the subject by Tamsin Hopkins, my writing mentor, a few months ago. I won’t attempt to summarise her clear and succinct exposition of the different levels of intimacy with characters.

At the moment you and I don’t know, from where we are looking, whether this termite mound still houses any termites, or whether they fled the nest decades ago. My brother, whose hand is on the surface, might get some intimation about whether there is any activity going on inside, but unless he has super-sensitive fingertips, he probably won’t. If we then decided to excavate part of the mound, we would find first-hand evidence of termite activity, past or present. For real intimacy, we might want to use some sort of micro-endoscope to explore the burrows and come face-to-face with some termites, or we might smell them, or feel their heat.

My apologies that this bloglet is a little late, but one of my reasons for the delay is that I have been producing a short video of the wedding using Final Cut Pro X, a canny bit of software for the Mac. I have only scraped the surface of what the programme can do, but one handy thing is called the ‘Ken Burns’ effect where I can zoom in, zoom out, or change the focus of interest using a still photo. Ken Burns is a famous documentary film-maker and turns out to be an age-mate of mine. The successful fiction writer should be able to vary the psychic distance from their characters in a similar way, so smoothly that the reader hardly notices the sleight of hand.

What we can say for certain is that there are no pangolins in the Entebbe Botanic Gardens, otherwise the termite mounds would show evidence of their attention. The trapping and smuggling of pangolins from Africa remains a huge problem and all the species are endangered. My next ‘pangolin’ is due out on 30th August.

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