#HospitalGlam

Hello again. Remember me?

I haven’t blogged properly for a while, partly because I’m wrapped up in The Mighty Healer, and partly because the boyfriend and I have both been varying shades of ill, ill, ill, for several months. Nothing sucks up time like hospital visits and bedrest.

Here in the UK, the general election is about to topple onto our heads. That means blanket coverage of men in bad suits shouting at each other about the NHS, not because they care that it’s circling the drain, but because winning debates is more fun than losing them. After a while, all the chatter ceases to sound like real life and enters Pink Floyd video territory, particularly when Cameron gets a bit sweaty and you sit there hoping his rubber mask will slither off to reveal the circuitry within.

So I want to share something fun.

Karolyn Gehrig is a queer disabled artist from Los Angeles. Like me, she has a connective tissue disorder and spends a lot of time traipsing in and out of hospital. To pick herself up, Karolyn started taking selfies in a medical setting, tagging them #HospitalGlam.

They’re gorgeous.

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“I started posting #hospitalglam because it was frustrating to me that every time I got sicker I’d disappear from my commitments and then feel shy about explaining where I’d been when I knew there was absolutely nothing wrong with pursuing treatment for my disabling chronic illnesses.”

The idea struck a chord. With the success of the #HospitalGlam hashtag on Twitter, Karolyn set up a Tumblr for fellow patients to submit their own selfies, giving them something to do in those doldrum waiting rooms, and winning back a bit of self-esteem at the same time. Any gender, any illness, artistic or silly, made-up or fed up.

One nice effect of #HospitalGlam is finding like-minded souls.

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Here’s Heather of Mortuary Report. She’s a funeral director and all-round fascinating human. You should read her blog on reclaiming sexiness and personal empowerment whilst chronically ill, but here’s a chunk that stuck out for me:

“There are few places where one feels less empowered and beautiful than in a medical setting, and it’s not just because of that awful beige color the walls in doctor’s offices are always painted. Most humans are fortunate to only associate doctors with tedious time spent in waiting rooms and an annual check up. For those of us who are chronically ill, however, the experience of spending as much time as we do in medical settings becomes a spin-cycle of misery, depression, and – often – questioning our own sanity. […] Being disabled in an able-bodied society quickly became a source of shame and frustration.”

Being chronically ill isn’t as glamorous as the brochure made it out to be. The invisibility Karolyn talked about – self-inflicted or otherwise – has an accumulative effect on the psyche. That’s on top of the media’s relentless commodification of the body, where presentability is bound up in youth, health, and unattainable conventional beauty. That’s why it’s so important to see images of people with chronic illnesses and disabilities where a) they’re in control, and b) pity porn, or the godawful ‘inspiration’, doesn’t come into it.

Model Melanie Gaydos will be familiar from Rammstein and Die Antwoord videos. Here, she talks about growing up with Ectodermal Dysplasia and bringing her individuality to the modelling world.

“When I go on a photo shoot, if there’s other industry models there, they normally don’t really know what to make of me. And they’re usually like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ […] I love modelling. A time for me to be completely open. I guess it’s kind of like a therapeutic process for me.”

#HospitalGlam is a weapon for those of us with chronic illnesses. With it, we reassert our individuality, regain our playfulness, and have a ‘frivolous’ place to escape to when all else might seem out of control. It is therapeutic. And it’s fun. And all the while people ask what the fuck, we know it’s needed.

Our Lady of the Cathode Rays. Thine be the free hospital mochas.

See you on the hashtag.

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The Mighty Healer: Thomas Holloway’s Victorian Patent Medicine Empire

2015 is off to a busy start. I’m very pleased to say I’ve been commissioned by Pen & Sword to write a book on Thomas Holloway, my Victorian ancestor, who made his fortune with patented pills and ointments.

It’s due for publication in 2016, so I’ll be spending most of this year poring over material like this…

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Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs – due date

ritaBSOTM quote

August 2015 is when you can buy my novella of magic and makeup, crypts and clownfish.

It’ll be available in paperback and ebook formats, and can be found in those bricks-and-mortar bookshops you used to see everywhere, as well as online.

 

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Magic & makeup, crypts & clownfish…

My magical realist novella, Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs, will be published in paperback and ebook formats later this year.

“Once we looked to earthquakes to gauge the mood of God. I mean, I’ve seen some sights since the fourth century… but lately things have taken a creative turn.”

More details to follow, but here’s some blurb to tide you over…

Saint Silvan is a miracle. Since he died two thousand years ago, not one atom of his beautiful body has succumbed to the natural decay of the flesh. But the planet is not so fortunate. In a small church in Croatia’s Dubrovnik, Silvan lies in state for the veneration of the faithful while nation after nation succumbs to the rising tides of climate change. When an immortal dandy calling himself Az offers Silvan a job boosting humanity’s morale by prettifying the revered dead, Silvan is eager to offer his talents, unaware that someone may be playing him for a holy fool.

From Imperial Rome to Soviet Russia, Silvan crosses the worlds of the living and the dead to uncover his past and divine his future in a dying world.

This is a story of magic and makeup, crypts and clownfish.

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Saint Silvan

 

 

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Wunderkammer: The Master & Margarita. Manuscripts don’t burn.

A few years ago, I was absorbed in a book at a bus stop when a man materialised in front of me. Grinning, the stranger leant in so close that our noses almost touched.

“Good book?”

It’s fortunate he took me by surprise, because I could well have spoiled his pickup artistry with, “Sure is! It’s about Satan.”


“Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar’s vile tongue be cut out! Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!”

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is one of those books I thrust at people like a zealot. “No, really. You need this. You. Need. This.” The Devil’s minions – a joker with a pince-nez, a thug, and a wise-cracking, vodka-swilling cat – wreak havoc across 1930s Moscow. If that doesn’t excite you, you’re beyond help.

Now considered a twentieth-century classic, The Master and Margarita was nearly lost to history. A jab at Russian state-sanctioned atheism and the stranglehold of Soviet bureaucracy, the novel is laugh-out-loud-in-public-like-a-lunatic funny, yet heartfelt and romantic, a channel for Bulgakov’s frustration and depression. Juxtaposing his contemporary Russia with Biblical Jerusalem, the story demonstrates Bulgakov’s keen intellect and interest in ethics and questions of personal freedom – all of which could get a writer killed in Stalin’s Russia.

By Chris Conn Askew

By Chris Conn Askew

Shortly after kicking a morphine habit in 1919, Mikhail Bulgakov gave up his life as a country doctor to write full-time (just as well, considering he managed to rip out a sizeable chunk of a man’s jaw during a tooth extraction). He enjoyed early success with his plays and short stories before finding his niche, blending merciless political satire with the fantastical. Then, in the 1920s, censorship caught up with him. Stalin personally banned Bulgakov’s play The Run, and the rest of his work, if not banned outright, received brutal criticism for making fun of the Soviet regime.

Surreally, Stalin was a fan of Bulgakov. Allegedly, he saw The White Guard performed 15 times and went so far as to step in and protect him from his harsher critics, claiming dangerous political jargon like ‘counter-revolutionary’ was beneath a writer of such calibre. Bulgakov must have felt in league with the Devil.

"Well, as everyone knows, once witchcraft gets started, there's no stopping it."

“Well, as everyone knows, once witchcraft gets started, there’s no stopping it.”

The censorship took its toll on Bulgakov’s mental health. As a medical man, he knew he was likely to die young of hereditary kidney disease, and his life’s work was being ‘killed’, as he put it, within his lifetime. In a staggering moment of chutzpah, Bulgakov wrote to Stalin – mad Stalin, Stalin of the Gulags and the purges – demanding to be taken off the blacklist or allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Stalin let him resume his day-job the Art Theatre. But Bulgakov was a watched man, increasingly bitter and depressed. The manuscript he had been working on since the 1920s – the one that would eventually become The Master and Margarita – worried his family and friends. It was an impassioned treatise on artistic and spiritual freedom, and the satire was razor-sharp. Everyone privileged enough to be shown a glimpse loved it, and everyone knew it would never see the light of day.

In a fit of despondency, Bulgakov burned his only draft and was forced to rewrite from memory. This drastic act is one of the autobiographical details that make the story so compelling – in the rewritten novel, The Master burns his magnus opus only to have it returned to him by the Devil. “Didn’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?”

Bulgakov never saw his masterpiece published. After his death at 49, his wife Elena strove to find a publisher who’d agree to work with such dangerous material. In the end, she could only persuade a small periodical to release the novel in serial form, twenty-six years after the author’s death.

“‘What’s its future?’ you ask?” Bulgakov wrote. “I don’t know. Possibly, you will store the manuscript in one of the drawers, next to my ‘killed’ plays, and occasionally it will be in your thoughts. Then again, you don’t know the future. My own judgement of the book is already made and I think it truly deserves being hidden away in the darkness of some chest…”

Bulgakov

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A ghost story for Christmas

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Photo by Karen Sheard on Flickr

The Watchmaker’s Gift

I returned from midnight Mass eager for the warmth of my master’s hearth and something indulgent to drink. I had enjoyed the Christmas service, on the whole, but I was saddened my master was too unwell to accompany me as he had for many years. I was a small boy when he selected me as an apprentice, appreciating the slender dexterity of my fingers, naturally suited to the intricate arts of the watchmaker. Since then, his astounding miniature creations had earned us both considerable fame – timepieces no bigger than buttons, working clocks for dolls’ houses, and even a jewelled ring that chimed on the hour and was rumoured to have been purchased for a Russian princess. With his advancing age, my master’s mounting obsession to create the tiniest watch imaginable had claimed his eyesight. Now, even with his thick spectacles, he struggled to see so much as his own knife and fork when I served him supper. It pained him, and at church that Christmas Eve I said a prayer to all the saints I knew:

“Return my master’s sight to him, even just for the night. Help him craft one more tiny, wondrous thing.”

When I returned to our home above the workshop, I found only one candle lit beside our diminutive Christmas tree. My master sat in the gloom. I could barely ascertain the glint of his spectacles. The dark was bad for his eyes and the cold bad for his chest, but I hadn’t the heart to scold him, particularly when I noticed, next to the tree, an enormous box. It was wrapped in red paper and sealed with a ribbon of gold, and was almost as tall as me. It had not been there when I left.

“A small token, dear boy,” I heard my master say, from the shadows. “Unwrap it, please. It is past midnight, after all.”

With a glimmer of childish pleasure, I set about opening my gift. As I tore through the red paper, thinking I would find some large wooden chest or armchair, I was surprised to find neither of these things, but another layer of wrapping.

“Smaller,” he chuckled. I smiled, heartened by the return of my master’s good humour, and continued to unwrap my gift. Yet I found only another layer of paper.

“Smaller,” said my master.

After some time and much bemusement, I was surrounded by mounds of discarded red paper. The package had shrunk to the size of a shoebox, but I was no closer to my gift.

“This must have taken you hours to wrap,” I laughed. How had he hidden something so large from me? Our workshop was modest, our rooms above intimate. I knew of no-one with sufficient humour to help him in such a task. I was the only family the old man had.

“Smaller,” my master coaxed from the darkness.

Dawn approached. My head swam with my need to sleep, and the gift, still neatly wrapped, was now small enough to hold in my palm. I was irritated with him, and annoyed at my own pettiness in the face of such an elaborate and no doubt well-intentioned joke, but still I tore through layer upon layer of paper and ribbon. My fingertips grew sore. My eyes ached with the lack of light, and for another hour the only sounds in the room were the tearing of paper and the soft, infuriating laughter of my master.

“Smaller.”

When the gift was the size of my thumbnail, I thought that surely, at last, I was close. It would be one of his miniature timepieces, the smallest yet, a wonder of the age. My prayer would have been answered. We would share a brandy and chuckle at my astonishment, and in the light of Christmas Morning we would eat fruitcake and play cards as we had together since I was a boy.

Yet as I peeled back the final layer of paper, no bigger than a postage stamp, I found the package to contain nothing.

At first, I simply stared. My hands shook. There was no miniature timepiece, no gift, not even so much as a grain of rice for my labours. And my master, not a cruel man, not a man given to spiteful gestures, was laughing in his chair, in the corner, in the darkness. Laughing at me.

I snatched up the candlestick and strode with it to his chair to demand an explanation, to touch his brow for signs of sickness, or worse, some brain fever brought on by frustration and old age. I lifted the candle above my head to better view him and was about to open my mouth, unable to contain my annoyance any longer.

He had, for some considerable time, been dead.

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Christmas: A Survival Guide For The Spooky

Every year, around September, the nightmares start. I’ve lost the ability to cook, or forgotten to buy presents, or – and I had this one last night – a completely imaginary cousin is having a breakdown over the sprouts because he can’t afford to move out of his parents’ house and what are you going to do about it, Verity?!

Wading through the syrupy supermarket ads, the money-grabbing pop songs, and all that infernal fruitcake, we’ve forgotten that midwinter was once a time for ghost stories, when our ancestors met around the fire to celebrate another year of narrowly avoiding the bloody flux. All that phoney Christmas cheer can be hard when you’re spooky by nature, so I’ve put together a list of things that might just get you through…

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill

Misty winter evenings, strong drink, and Victorian medical students with too much time on their hands. It’s a pocket-size ghostly novella that can be read in one sitting, and the punchline is Susan Hill at her effortlessly chilling best.

M.R. James’ ghost stories by Nunkie Theatre

nunkieI’ve seen Robert Lloyd Parry read James’ tales of the uncanny twice, in the flesh – in a candlelit medieval leper chapel, no less. Parry’s softly-spoken delivery casts you back into an antiquarian age of fusty academics and sherry sipped alone by the fire. He is the next best thing to re-animating the author. You can buy DVDs and audio here.

Krampus

krampussticksIf you’ve ever worked Christmas in retail, you’ll understand the appeal of a giant Germanic goat-man dragging naughty children away in chains. Krampus has enjoyed something of a Renaissance in recent years, so it’s no longer hard to source hilariously macabre cards, ornaments, and festive jumpers bearing his grinning hairy visage. My own tree features a glass Krampus nestling amongst bat tinsel.

Christopher Lee’s heavy metal Christmas singles

Thrashing as we go
In a hearse that knows the way
To hell we go!
Crying all the way.

“It’s light-hearted, joyful and fun,” he says. Thank God for Christopher Lee. His own Christmas tradition involves wearing Vincent Price’s special festive hat.

The Haunted Looking Glass

Selected and illustrated by Edward Gorey, this is one of my favourite collections of ghost stories. Highlights include Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’, and Stoker’s ‘The Judge’s House’. Small enough to produce from your handbag during those hellish Post Office queues.

Jill Tracy – Silver Smoke, Star of Night

Because nothing fosters that festive glow in the heart like the minor chords of murky cabaret. Jill Tracy’s voice is silk and cyanide. Her Christmas album features gloomy renditions of traditional carols as well as ‘Room 19’: “Tracy’s tale about the forlorn spirit who haunts a desolate hotel room where he committed suicide Christmas Eve 1947”.

Charles Dickens’ hot gin punch

ginpunchI sampled one or two of these at the recent London Month of The Dead, courtesy of Hendrick’s Gin and inspired by Mister Micawber…

I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning spirit, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of a punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

Gin lovers disagree on the finer points, but go ahead and experiment with the basic elements: gin, Madeira, lemon juice, sugar, spices, and boiling water. For a more authentic Victorian taste, perhaps swap dry gin for the harder flavour of Dutch genever. Punch doesn’t have to be cosy; simply don a black veil and sit in a corner, a la Lady Dedlock, and brood over the intoxicating vapours.

There. Doesn’t that feel better? Merry bleedin’ Christmas. And roll on next Halloween.

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Review: Silent Partners at The Fitzwilliam

It’s been a good couple of months for writing. After getting some lovely responses over my last short story (it’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize – I got the news in the middle of the night during a bout of chronic pain, and I initially thought it was my medication playing tricks) I’ve been putting concerted effort into finishing the novella that’s been lingering about since last winter. To be annoyingly vague, it concerns the nocturnal lives of mannequins, so, for a bit of research and a break from my desk, I visited Silent Partners at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.

Reposing, by Alan Beeton

“Silent Partners is a ground-breaking exhibition devoted to the artist’s mannequin, that uncovers its playful, uncanny – and sometimes disturbing – history from the Renaissance to the present-day.”

The exhibition is far bigger than I anticipated. Three large rooms of artists’ lay figures, anatomists’ models, and fashion clotheshorses charting the evolution of the human simulacrum from religious devotion to arch Surrealism, along with striking photography and disembodied limbs dotted around the rest of the Fitz.

Life-sized dolls, no matter how beautifully made, are creepy, and the curators understand. From the moment you enter Silent Partners, you’re hit by the ‘uncanny valley’ effect. Viewing Walter Sickert’s life-sized wooden lay figure – laid out in a coffin, no less – I realised I was experiencing the same sensation of voyeurism I get when viewing Egyptian mummies or one of Doctor Gunther’s anonymous corpses. CT scans add to that sense of the uncanny. The mannequins once had life and purpose. Now they lie still.

To my perverse delight, the Fitz has sourced one of Thomas Edison’s horrendous talking dolls. It’s about as adorable as a vocal manifestation in a poltergeist haunting. The business went bust in the 1890s because children were understandably terrified. Dolls – blonde and smiling or otherwise – have the power to scare, whether you want them to or not.

Are you still with me after that?

Less unnerving is the lay figure’s role as studio companion. Many of the nineteenth century mannequins on display have small, faintly smiling faces and eyes that look submissively up from under the lashes as if to say, “…master?” This of course led to accusations of fetishism – a new term in fin-de-siecle psychology. After all, an artist’s lay figure is an idealised, usually female figure, posable, silent, and always there. A kind of sexless mistress, lifelike but lifeless.

Edward Burne-Jones bears the brunt of this. Comparing his Pygmalion series to the vibrant new woman of Jones’ time, one label points to Ned’s fixation with statue-serene models as a symptom of his own sexual repression. That strikes me as a bit harsh, particularly when looking at his famously fiery lover, Maria Zambaco. You don’t roll around on the cobblestones with someone if you’re not at least slightly open to the urgency of your own passions. But I see what they’re getting at: ‘I love you, but please stand still and shut up’.

The_Soul_AttainsThere’s a surprising amount of Pre-Raphaelite art, considering the movement was so concerned with realism. Ford Madox Brown owned five lay figures at the time of his death (including a horse), and The Last of England was completed partially with the help of these figures. Critics noticed. There’s a fun insult from the eighteenth century: “This painting stinks of the mannequin”. Millais was better at hiding his use of lay figures. The Black Brunswicker required two so that the models – Dickens’ daughter Katy and an army private not of her acquaintance – wouldn’t have to hold such an intimate pose.

The fashion segment was particularly interesting. Earlier clothes modelling mannequins have far more physical agency than the ones you’ll see in Topshop windows. These eighteenth century lifeless girls have hands that reach and gesticulate, and faces poised as if to speak. It was only in the nineteenth century that shop windows began to display disembodied hips and busts. A decline in tailoring to the individual? Or a less sinister preference for cheap mass production?

Overall, Silent Partners is an impressive undertaking and hugely interesting – and free! I’ll be returning at least once. The only downside was the lack of labels on the large photographs dotted around the other galleries, because I loved them but couldn’t find the photographer’s name. It’s probably my shortsightedness, but somebody enlighten me, please.

Photo by StuffandStories on Twitter.

Photo by StuffandStories on Twitter.

Silent Partners is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge until the 25th Jan 2015, and then the Musée Bourdelle in Paris from the 31st March until the 12th of July 2015.

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That Damned Elusive Pearl Spiral

You will have seen it again and again in Rossetti’s paintings of lush, isolated women – a spiral of pearls nestling in waves of red or raven hair. Once you’ve noticed it, it keeps turning up. Here it is in ‘A Christmas Carol’…

christmas-carol…and in Alexa Wilding’s hair in ‘Monna Vanna’…

dante_gabriel_rossetti_12_monna_vanna…and, naturally, adorning Jane Morris in ‘Mariana’…

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Rossetti was an incorrigible collector. His Chelsea house was crammed with musical instruments he never played, mirrors he never polished, and great swathes of fabrics for the beautification of his models. He spent the evenings rummaging in junk shops for exotic jewellery and amassed quite a collection of cheap yet dramatic pieces. Some of these pieces still surface in Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic exhibitions. Unfortunately, the spiral hair pin he obviously adored was allegedly borrowed by a friend and never seen again. That probably didn’t do Rossetti’s latent paranoia any good.

While we wait for it to turn up on Antiques Roadshow, we have Kirsty Walker’s biscuit replicas to enjoy, and – at last! – beautiful handmade replicas by Joanna of Nanya Online. I don’t normally do plugs, but I won Joanna’s Tumblr competition and I’m just thrilled. It arrived today in a tiddy box adorned with ‘The Beloved’.

IMG_2672 IMG_2678Isn’t it delicate? It feels like a network of tiny bones in my hand. Joanna also makes earring replicas of the spiral. Have a look at her shop.

Unlike Alexa Wilding and friends, my hair is made of ghosts, so nothing will ever stay in it. Luckily the spiral comes with another pin so it can be worn as a brooch. I’ll be wearing it on my Victorian riding jacket at Portsmouth’s Victorian Festival of Christmas where I’ll be ‘performing’ – ha! – later this month. See you there.

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Terror & Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at the British Library

gothbl I’d like to be able to write coherently about the British Library’s Gothic exhibition, but because I’m an inveterate goth, I’m at risk of listing my moments of “Oh God, I can’t believe they’ve got the actual original [insert artefact here]”, hand to pale brow. Bear me for a moment, because–

Mervyn Peake’s handwritten Gormenghast!

Doctor Dee’s Elizabethan scrying mirror!

Thomas Chatterton’s medieval forgeries!

Letters by John Polidori!

Not since 2012’s Pre-Raphaelites at The Tate have there been so many of my favourite things in a single room. Anyone who loves Gothic will lick their chops at The British Library. From the genre’s florid beginnings with The Castle of Otranto to The Sisters of Mercy crooning at girls who wander by mistake, the exhibition is a celebration of the pleasure Gothic’s many incarnations have brought people down the centuries – and how Gothic manages never to die.

Crumbling ramparts, impenetrable forests, double lives, and lashings of gore. Gothic has always toyed with what disturbs us – the secret lives of respectable personages in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, female sexuality in Carmilla, foreign invasion in Dracula. No wonder there was pearl-clutching at the thought of sensible Victorian girls devouring Gothic novels, letting their darkest desires run free. This breathless consumption of all things dreadful left early Gothic fans open to ridicule (try reading The Castle of Otranto without laughing), but the exhibition manages to convey Gothic’s steady evolution into a self-aware, perhaps even post-modern genre, taking us through to Edward Gorey’s playful macabre and the androgynous world of post-punk goth.

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The hysterical quality of Gothic is where the fun lies. Because there’s that veneer of ‘wink-wink, we know this is daft’, the genre has the opportunity to introduce genuinely scary ideas in a setting we’re already comfortable with. We sign up to the horror of Gothic while we may shy away from brutal realism. Take the alcoholism and child abuse in The Shining. We talk about the bathtub woman or the bloody lift, but what’s really chilling is Jack’s likability while he terrorises his wife and child with a croquet mallet. Gothic is something that lurks beneath the ordinary; a sense of heightened, oversaturated reality where the family secrets are literally locked in the attic, scratching with broken fingernails at all that floral Victorian wallpaper.

Terror & Wonder is on at the British Library until January 2015.

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